Those Damn Decade Photos

It was last January when I saw the first decade photo. I remember it well. It was of a gorgeous 27 year old who had also been a gorgeous 17 year old. No awkward photos there. Just lovely teeth, lovely hair, lovely – I mean really lovely – skin, and a cute caption. Something like “Wow – it’s been a decade. So much has happened but I guess I’m holding up okay!” All of us responded positively to the beautiful perfection that was her. She also had a chin, which for some of us was perhaps the most enviable part of her photograph.

I began to see more and more decade photos, and finally I thought “Wow! Wouldn’t it be fun to find some photos and do the same?”

I would periodically set out to find the decade photos, but every time a memory would stop me. A memory from the last decade of life. A memory that didn’t find its way into social media, but found its way into my mind, floating there until I gave it the laughter, joy, or tears that it deserved.

These damn decade photos – they capture a couple of seconds in time, but the moments before and after dance around them, creating an album of life that isn’t easily shared.

For so many of us, these decade photos are tough. A decade ago, some had a home to go to for Christmas – now they long for their phones to buzz with a text of invitation from someone who knows they are alone. A decade ago, a grandmother could walk quickly and unassisted, conquering her eighties like a boss. Now she walks with a cane or walker, ever aware of her fragility. A decade ago, a couple pledged their lives to each other- family and friends witnessing and celebrating. Now a casket holds the body of one of them while the other lives through the unimaginable.

When we first search for the photos, it’s a fun game. “Let’s look!Let’s see how the pictures differ!” The kid with braces and a god-awful haircut turns into the male model – or not. The pictures we carefully curate may be beautiful or fun but they hide much of what the decade held. For me, the longer I searched, the more i realized the moments lived in the decade were far deeper than the pictures we took.

A decade ago, I was parenting a child in middle school, a child in high school, two college students, and a young adult. Now I’m parenting 5 adults, all on their own in different cities of the world. How could I possibly find photos that captured the differences between them and now? More than that, did I have the resilience to look back at the hard, hard things that transpired? The “non-curated” moments where life fell apart and you weren’t sure you could go on.

But I kept searching, because ultimately I wanted to see how life had changed, and how we had changed and adapted with it. ⠀

This morning I looked back in the archives and found the long sought-after pictures. Memories and moments hidden from the one-dimensional camera lens tumbled over each other, but I pressed on.

For most parents, mingled in with the pictures are a million stories of our kids growing up and facing equal amounts of joy and pain without us able to bear witness and be a soft landing for them. They have grown up and grown on. And though we may still be very much a part of their lives, we are not going to know everything, because we aren’t supposed to. ⠀

The best we can do is embrace them when they come home, give them a soft pillow and a warm drink, and love them, love them, love them. And we can pray mercy and grace over them by the handfuls, and pray that they will have the tools to face whatever is going on in their lives. ⠀

And then sometimes we get golden moments. Weddings, births, and reunions – visible evidence of families expanding to include partners and grandkids. And somehow the love that we have for them grows to include the extra people. It’s a miracle really – this human capacity to love. A miracle of God.⠀


Next time I see a decade photo, I’ll remember that even the most beautiful picture includes a storied life of joy and pain, sometimes visible, other times invisible.

Here’s to the untold stories of this past decade, the ones that never make it to social media, because they aren’t supposed to. The stories we hold close to our hearts and first in our prayers. And may we always remember, we are all so much more than we appear.

2009-2019

A Life Overseas – On Family Albums and What I Didn’t Know

Posted by Marilyn

Our family albums tell amazing stories. Picnics in the shadow of the Great Pyramids of Egypt; bucket baths in Swat Valley – home to Malala the brave; hiking in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains; feeding pigeons outside the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul; climbing on canons in Quebec City; wandering through Topkapi Palace with cousins, an added bonus; early morning train journeys from Ankara to Istanbul; roaming the streets of Cairo and boat rides on the Nile. 

Amazing stories, each one of them. Each one an entry into a thick family album.

And then the stories changed, and with them the photographs. Those fading photographs changed from plane rides to road trips, from palm trees to sugar maples, from apartments in a large Middle Eastern city to a Victorian home on Main Street in New England. Suddenly there were leaves to rake during golden autumns. Warm winters with no need for snow boots changed to delighted cries of “It’s snowing” followed by sledding on the small hill in our back yard. Spring saw us aching for the warmth of summer and forcing forsythia to bloom and bring color and new life. And then there were the summers, where daily trips to the ocean, even if it was for only an hour, were necessary as we experienced the magic of low tide on rocky New England beaches.

We were no longer on planes every year, our passports ready to be stamped. Our suitcases had layers of dust on them and the trunks that had so faithfully crossed the ocean found other uses storing legos and other toys. The reminders of our former lives were reduced to photo albums, stories, stamps in our passports, and Arafat and Rabin, sworn enemies, looking out at us from a heart-shaped frame on our mantle.

Our photo albums capture points in time, but not the whole narrative. Not the narrative of transition and loss, of starting a new life and trying to recreate home. Written through every picture is the hidden narrative of finding home within transition. Finding home in a world that changed frequently.

And what about our children in all of this? What about those blonde and dark heads, those blue and brown eyes, those toddler And elementary school bodies that even then were growing into a space far beyond our walls of safety? What about those kids captured so well in photographs, and yet – not really captured at all?

I knew nothing of the third culture life when we began this journey. I knew that I felt most comfortable between worlds but I had not discovered the language to articulate this. I knew I felt different in the United States then I did in Pakistan, but the research was new and not mainstream. I was a third culture kid raising third culture kids, and I didn’t have a clue as to what that really meant.

Shallow roots are tender, they need care as they are being transplanted. We hurt shallow roots because we didn’t know any better.


In the midst of such constant change, how do we still find a way to be in the world, to build a home under ever-changing conditions? I think the answer is found not in the concept of home per se but what a home provides us, which is a place of dwelling. To dwell is to linger, to safely be.

DR. MICHELLE HARWELL 

When we live lives that take us miles from family and home cultures, we learn that a home is far more than four walls and a roof. Home becomes people, routines, precious objects that make their way across oceans and transitions, and digging up roots that, though shallow, are still roots.

How do we navigate all of this? How do we adapt when change and transition feel like the only constants?How do we keep up the rhythms of home, and a sense of belonging when the walls of home have moved?


As children, I think we take for granted that a home is gifted to us. It’s made for us through the routines, the four walls that surround and the emotional rhythms that build a sense of familiarity and holding. As we grow, that sense of belonging to a place and a people translates to a more robust internal belonging and holding that allows us to venture further and further out into the world.

DR. MICHELLE HARWELL

I didn’t know back then – but now I do know, and this is what I would tell my younger self – Click here to read the rest of the piece at A Life Overseas.

“At two and a bit, he understood neither distance nor time. What he understood was that we were there, but he was not. For the first time in his short life, he learnt how to say goodbye.”

DANAU TANU AUTHOR OF GROWING UP IN TRANSIT 

Losing My Umbrella – Some Thoughts on a Father’s Death

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I am looking through old pictures when my eyes begin to blur with salty tears. So many of the pictures I’ve been looking through are pictures of my father.

Whether summer or winter, there he is – his familiar face with his ready smile. My dad smiled from his bones. It was never fake, never false, it was who he was. I look at pictures from years ago and pictures from last summer with seemingly little difference. He is there, he is strong, he is fully present, he is smiling.

When your father dies, say the Irish

You lose your umbrella against bad weather.

This is the beginning of a poem by Diana Der-Hovanessian that describes how different cultures express what happens when your father dies. It’s a good beginning. Anyone who has lost their father can write their own when my father died moments. In honor of his birthday coming up on June 7th, here are mine.


When my father died, I lost a rock, someone who was steadfast and secure in a shifting world.

When my father died, I lost the offer of a bowl of icecream whenever I visited.

When my father died, I lost someone who asked me every weekend of the summer “Are you heading up to Rockport this weekend?” How he loved Rockport!

When my father died, I lost the ability to say “Hi Dad!” and hear his strong reply “Hi Marilyn!”

When my father died, I lost his well-worn jokes, told with so much laughter he could hardly make it to the punch line.

When my father died, I lost a piece of enthusiasm and love for life.

When my father died, I lost a birthday and a father’s day. There will be no more cards to send, phone calls to make.

When my father died, I lost one grandfather for my kids. I lost his earthly prayers, but his heavenly ones remain.

When my father died, I lost pieces of my childhood, now buried in a piece of earth.

When my father died, I lost my umbrella, my raincoat, and my hood. He was all those things and more.

When my father died, I lost his presence, but I kept the memories and they are sweet.

When my father died, I lost him, but I didn’t lose myself – because he never wanted me to be anyone else.

When my father died, Heaven became a lot sweeter and a bit closer.

When my father died. 


SHIFTING THE SUN by Diana Der-Hovanessian

 When your father dies, say the Irish

you lose your umbrella against bad weather.

May his sun be your light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Welsh

you sink a foot deeper into the earth.

May you inherit his light, say the Armenians

When your father dies, say the Canadians

you run out of excuses.

May you inherit his sun, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Indians

he comes back as the thunder.

May you inherit his light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Russians,

he takes your childhood with him.

May you inherit his light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the British,

you join his club you vowed you wouldn’t.

May you inherit his sun, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Armenians,

your sun shifts forever

and you walk in his light.

Remembering those First Days of a Newborn

It’s my daughter Annie’s birthday today.

Annie is our firstborn. She ushered us gently into parenthood 32 years ago. On day two she slept so long that we sat around her woven Moses basket like we were humans examining an alien being.

The conversation went something like this:

“She’s so perfect.”

“Yes. She is SO perfect.”

“Look at her tiny hands.”

“Look at her nose.”

“She is so tiny.”

“She is so beautiful.”

“Do you think she’s sleeping too long?”

“I don’t know. Do YOU think she’s sleeping too long?”

“I kind of think so.”

“Me too. Maybe we should wake her up?”

“Do you think we should wake her up?”

“I kind of do.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

“It’s been so long since she’s nursed.”

“Yeah. Let’s wake her up.”

“Okay.”

“How?”

“Well, maybe if we pick her up she’ll just wake up.”

“Okay.”

“You do it.”

“No. You do it.”

“Okay.”

Sigh.

“But she looks so peaceful!”

“I know but I think she needs to wake up. She needs to nurse.”

“Okay.”

“Look at her feet!”

“I know. They are so perfect.”

“Look at her rose-bud lips! Look at how they are quivering.”

And so it went on and on and on.

Finally, we woke her up. And then….well, then we couldn’t get her to sleep. She was the wide-awake baby girl.

So the conversation continued.

“Do you think she’s still hungry?”

“I don’t know. I think she nursed a lot.”

“Do you think anything is wrong?”

“Maybe we should change her diaper again.”

And on, and on, and on. Because we were smitten and all we could do was talk about our baby. The most perfect baby in the entire world.


There is something about those days with your first-born child that you will never, ever forget. Your whole being is raw with love. Your heart is on the outside of your body and there is no protection for the arrows that come your way. You marvel at every tiny move, expression, furrowed brow, slight smile. You hold the tiny thing close, afraid to let it go. Your nights and days are no longer your own, and they swim together, closing in on each other. You have never known that kind of exhaustion. You thought exhaustion was about research papers in college, but you now scoff at that exhaustion. That exhaustion is kid’s play compared to this real, grownup exhaustion.

You can’t get enough of this little human. When you play charades, this little baby is your favorite person to act out. First touch, first smiles, first tooth, even their poops and peeps are cause for amazement or distress. And your conversations? You hide it from your friends but when you’re alone together, all you want to talk about is this little baby that now consumes your life.

Today I remember those first days and I smile. My first-born now has her own first-born and I delight in watching the two of them. His face lights up when she enters the room and his smiles brighten her world, just as her’s did mine.

In the dance of parenthood, we have left the slow dance of the beginning, with it’s long moments of sheer wonder. We are now in the era of jazz, where you agree on the notes, and then you improvise. Slow jazz plays in the background, but this dance of parenthood is no longer the central part of our lives. The furniture is rearranged and sometimes the house echoes with empty. We miss them but we have raised them with wings to fly and they exercise those wings well.

But still there are those moments, especially on their birthdays, when we are taken back to the beginning.

We remember and we smile.

Happy Birthday Annie! Being your mom is an undeniable gift.


Note: The above dialogue went on for much longer than it took you to read it!

A Life Overseas -Thoughts on Entry, Reentry, and Third Culture Kids


Every summer I begin thinking about change and transition, about reentry and culture shock. With the first warm breezes of the season, I am transported to places and times where this was my reality. And I begin to hear stories from others who are going through these transitions. The stories are told in photographs and short, often humorous, statements, hiding the tremendous impact of transnational moves.
When I began looking into information on reentry, I came across refugee resettlement and orientation programs for refugees entering a country. I was struck by how much the advice resonated with me as a third culture kid. While on one level the TCK and the refugee experience are worlds apart, the goals and the realistic expectations in refugee orientation programs are remarkably helpful.
Because orientation for the refugee is not just about theory and information, it is designed to give the refugee “the opportunity to develop realistic expectations regarding their resettlement, to consider different situations that might arise in a new country, and develop skills and attitudes that will facilitate their adjustment and well-being”*

The first thing I realized is that we, like the refugee or immigrant, don’t ‘reenter’. Instead we ‘enter’ a world that is not familiar, a world that calls up all of our flexibility and ingenuity to adjust. It may seem like a small thing, but the difference between those words is huge.

So I began developing my own list for my tribe, the third culture kid tribe. I offer it here with hopes that both those who enter and those who re-enter may find a nugget of truth. I’d love to here your thoughts through the comment section!


  • Realistic time expectations. Entering a new world is a journey and it rarely happens in three months or six months. We are moving to a new country, a new world. As such it deserves all the attention we would give to going into a totally different culture. Transitioning to a new life in our passport country is far bigger than spending a summer vacation there. Give yourself a minimum of two years, but don’t be surprised if it takes five.
  • Accepting that we are a combination of worlds. As TCKs, our worlds are woven together in a semi-formed tapestry. Many of us feel like completely different people when we’re in our passport countries. We are not chameleons and we are not impostors; rather we’re trying to make sense of our worlds and figure out what cultural adaptation looks like as we effectively transition to our passport countries. Yes – there is loss of identity. But as we work through these losses, our identities as those who can live between worlds emerge stronger than ever.
  • Understanding culture shock. We don’t go through reverse culture shock – we go through culture shock. Reverse culture shock means we know a culture, have been away from it, and are returning to differences we didn’t expect. In our case, we don’t really know this culture we are entering. We may think we know it, because our passports tell us we should, but we don’t. And while reverse culture shock is described as “wearing contact lenses in the wrong eyes”, culture shock is having completely different lenses.
  • Giving voice to a longing. Struggling to give voice to our longings is enormous. Somehow it doesn’t feel valid. But giving voice to our longings is legitimate. Our world as we know it has ended. We may be able to visit our home, our adopted country, but we know that we must have a valid and legal way to stay there should we wish to go back.

    We will have times of intense longing and wistfulness for what no longer exists.

    This can be captured best in the word ‘saudade’, a Portuguese word that came into the existence in the 13th century. “The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness. ~ In Portugal of 1912, A. F. G. Bell”  Giving voice to ‘saudade’ helps take away its power and ability to control. The longings are there, they are valid, but if they control us we will despair. Our longings can be expressed through writing, through connecting to other TCKs, through the visual arts, through theatre, through faith, and through friendships.

  • Understand the shaping of our worldview. While our parents went overseas with already developed worldviews and through their interactions in their host countries had their worldviews affected, ours began developing in our host country. Our first memories may be the sound of the Call to Prayer or a dusty road and traffic jam involving a buffalo, two donkey carts, and our parent’s jeep. They may be of a crowded and colorful bazaar filled with colorful fabrics and bangles. Our experiences shape our worldview this will probably differ markedly from those of our parents and those of our peers in our passport countries. Having realistic understanding and expectations on differing worldviews helps us to not expect or demand that others understand us.
  • Faith can be complicated. For many of us, faith is paramount to who we are. But it gets tangled up in our adjusting to life in our passport countries. It’s particularly difficult if we feel we can’t question God, express disbelief or doubt, or change denominations because it feels disloyal to our parents.This can inhibit our honesty as it relates to our faith journeys. Perhaps doubt was never a part of our faith journey before, but now that our world has changed the doubts surface. A question emerges: “Will the faith that sustained us through our journey thus far be big enough to get us through this crucial juncture?” It’s an important question and often we need to find people beyond our parents who can hear and understand us, speaking truth into our faith and our doubt.
  • The importance of cultural brokers. Often there emerges someone who doesn’t share our background but understands in a way that defies our understanding. This is a gift. This is the person that explains life to us, that walks beside us. This is the one that looks through our high school yearbook and says“Now who’s this with you? And did you go on that camping trip where you got in trouble for sneaking over to where the boys were sleeping before or after this picture was taken?” This personal interest helps us understand what friendship, listening, and cultural brokering look like. So learn from them. Look to them. But don’t put undue burdens on them.
  • Place is significant – significant physically, emotionally, and spiritually. As humans, at our core is a need for ‘place’. Call it ‘belonging’, call it ‘home’, call it anything you like. But all of us are integrally connected to place. We are incarnate beings and so when those places are taken away, we suffer from a “disruption” of place. It is clear that the TCK has a disruption of place – and often multiple times in their lives. If the disruption goes beyond our ability to adapt it becomes a pathology. The late Paul Tournier, a gifted Swiss psychologist, calls this a “deprivation of place”. He says that to be human is to need a place, to be rooted and attached to that place. Many of us downplay this connection to place by over spiritualizing it or underestimating its importance. We need not dismiss it, we need not idolize it; we must only acknowledge it and recognize it as valid.
  • The yearning heart. All of us have a heart that yearns for belonging, for acceptance, for love. This is the human condition. It’s a fundamental truth and it is not unique to the third culture kid. What is hard is tying this in with all of our TCK experiences, life story, and worldview. It is easy for us to mistake our yearning for only that which we left, instead of remembering that we had a heart that yearned before we ever left our passport countries. If we can grow in an understanding of our hearts, what is global and universal in our yearning, and what is specifically tied to being a third culture kid, we are in a good place.  A desire for place is universal, a desire for our particular place, whether it be Buenos Aires or Bolivia or Cairo or Lebanon, is specific to our TCK background.
  • The need for grace. In the midst of all of this, it is so easy to want grace, and so hard to give grace. Yet all of this is about grace. The grace that we were given by our host country, the grace of others who walked beside us as kids, the grace of our parents in caring and loving even when they don’t fully understand. Those of us who ‘get’ grace will find it easier to give grace. Can we give grace to those who we feel dismiss us, hurt us, misunderstand us, or don’t like us? Can we give grace to the people who we misunderstand, who we don’t like, who we dismiss?

    None of this is a formula and it is not a list of stages. Although there are similarities that bind us together as TCK’s, ultimately we each have our own unique story.

    Walking through the entry process and emerging on the other side is one more chapter in that story, one more pattern in the ever-evolving tapestry of our lives.

This post was orginally published at A Life Overseas. 

Keep the Lego! (and other thoughts from adult TCKs)


Each year, I pick some TCK quotes to pass on to parents. Some of the quotes are poignant, some funny, but most of all – I think they are wise. The third culture kid is not a single person with one viewpoint; instead it is kids all over the world, each with their unique story and journey.  All these unique stories share one thing – a perspective on life that has developed through living outside of their passport cultures.

The quotes I share today reflect that life and can help parents as they seek to raise their children outside the places that the parents call ‘home’.

[Note – I have credited the quotes to those who were willing, the remainder are anonymous.]

Enjoy and feel free to share your thoughts through the comments!

“Take the Lego and never, ever, ever, sell the dollhouse.” Marilyn Gardner

“Where are our regular relationships, our connections? All over the map, and still in motion. It might depend on the week, on the season. We track them with social media and when they disappear for a while, we look in familiar places for them to resurface.  We load into the car with the members of our tribe that we can gather and we stop in and visit the ones we can reasonably reach on the way to and from our destination.”  On Being Local from Michael Pollock  

“Remember, our grief will not look like your grief. What we miss may not be the same as what you miss.” 

“I never felt so foreign as when I was surrounded by people who thought I was one of them.” Maria Lombart #FIGT17NL

“You may be reentering, but we are not reentering. We are “entering” – this may seem small to you, but it is a big distinction.”  

My Opa stood by the train tracks, huddled deep into his jacket in the cold Dutch winter. We’d snapped a quick photo together, I’d climbed on the train, and waved goodbye. I didn’t realize it would be the last time I would see him. As (third culture kids) grow up, we learn quickly that to say goodbye is an expected part of life. We leave without a tear because we know, there will be many more goodbyes ahead. Maria Lombart #FIGT17NL

“Your home is not transferrable to what is home to your children, and neither are your feelings or experiences. Sounds very simple, but it is very hard to live by.” Eva Laszlo-Herbert 

“Don’t expect your children to have the same feeling of belonging to your culture(s) and language(s) – whatever they choose doesn’t mean that they don’t love and respect you.” Ute Limacher-Riebold 

“Remember that kids and parents see the same event through different lenses. A child only knows part of the story, and interprets meaning from what they know. As they grow, they may need to hear the part of the story that was hidden when they were younger.” 

“Parents should not be surprised by their children’s future life choices based on their own choice to raise their kids overseas. For a parent who has raised their kids overseas to make the statement: ‘I wish you would settle down!’ feels uniquely unfair.”

“The part of the story you don’t know is the most important part – it gives meaning to your memories.” Marilyn Gardner 

“Loyalties will not look the same and be divided. The expectation that kids loyalty to place, to food, to nation, to sports teams will look the same as their parents is a false expectation. ” Anonymous


Finally – a note of encouragement: All parenting is complicated, so don’t immediately assume things are difficult because of the life overseas and third culture kid factor. As parents we make career and vocational choices based on what we know at the time. To forever heap guilt on yourself doesn’t help your kids. Instead, continue to listen well, respect, create a sense of place, and love your kids. 

Readers – what would you add? 

Some Thoughts on Parenting and Goodbyes


“All the world feels caught in these goodbyes, goodbyes that bruise and hurt but remind us that our hearts are still soft and alive. For a dead heart doesn’t hurt with a goodbye, only a heart alive to others feels the pain of that goodbye, the difficulty of leaving….” From the Goodbye section of Between Worlds page 202

On Sunday we said goodbye to our youngest son at the entrance to Hellenic College, a college that has shaped him through academia,service, friendship, and most importantly – faith. 

We said goodbye in early evening, when the sun still had a long while before it set, reflecting golden rays off of Jamaica Pond. 

We said goodbye to the many years of college that come with five children. We said goodbye to the joy we had in watching a child grow to be a man. We said goodbye to those who came into our lives through him. 

A short while after we said goodbye, he boarded a plane to Albania; from there his plans include travel and study for the next year. We raised our children on travel and the uncertainty that comes with frequent moves, so there is a deep satisfaction knowing that he is choosing to grow through travel. 

Letting go of our children is a series of stages that begins early in their lives. We proudly, but fearfully, watch as they make their way onto buses or across playgrounds, their first venture into a world we can no longer control. Each stage and step gives them a bit more independence until we face the reality that we are ancillary to their adult lives. When we began the journey of parenthood, we created their world, we were their world. But through the years we gradually step aside and let them shine, apart from us. 

And our son – he shines, and it is the work of God. 

The gratefulness I feel is complicated by post-surgery exhaustion and the tears from saying goodbye. It comes in waves, and I try not to overthink, over analyze, instead allowing myself to just be, to feel what I’m feeling without defending or accusing. 

A few years ago I wrote these words, and today I repeat them: 

…the best thing I do as I pack him off and say goodbye is 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 beloved children.

While the journey of parenthood continues until the day we die, there are pivotal turning points within that journey – and this is one of them. So I say goodbye with open arms, a glad heart, and tear-filled eyes. Somehow, all of those emotions belong to this moment. 

We become parents with no guarantees. Whether biologically birthing or adopting, parenthood is a journey of faith. Today I get to celebrate. Tomorrow I may have to cry. But that’s what this is: A long journey, a journey of faith. From A Long Journey, A Journey of Faith 

Let’s Talk About Lack of Choice in the Workplace

 

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This past week Brenda Barnes died. She was 64 years old.

You may not know much about Brenda Barnes, but she is an interesting role model for women looking at work choices. Brenda was the first CEO of PepsiCo. She broke the proverbial glass ceiling, but for her it wasn’t enough. After working as CEO for one year, she quit her job. Her reason? So she could spend more time with her family. Her decision made national headlines and anyone and everyone felt they had a right to comment on that decision.

On one side she was seen as a traitor of sorts — how dare she quit! Didn’t she realize that she owed it to all business women everywhere to stay in the job and do well?

On another side she was hailed as a hero — look at her! She gave it all up for the kids.

But this post isn’t about Brenda Barnes. This is about the lack of choice in the workplace in the United States of America.

Let me tell you why I think I have a right to talk about this: I have worked full time for the past 14 years while raising five children. Prior to that, I worked part time for 9 years (24 to 32 hours a week) so that we could put food on the table and gas in the car. Before that, I was a stay-at-home mom living overseas and navigating life in another culture. I’ve been in a place where I honestly didn’t know if we would have the money to make rent and fix our car to a place where I occasionally have extra and can help others. I’ve seen and done it all.

It is the year 2017, and I see just as much rigidity and lack of work-life balance as I did fourteen years ago. Maybe more so. Why are employers so non family friendly? Why do we have such poor working options for parents? Why is maternity leave a paltry three months if you’re lucky, leaving women crying in bathrooms as they attempt to pump breast milk for their three-month-old? Why do employers think more work can be completed in a cubicle, then in a home office? These are just a few of the many questions I ask all the time.

And so I pose a question: In the year 2017, why is it that the two most flexible jobs for women are as nurses and as teachers? This is assanine. Female engineers, chefs, software developers, public health professionals, and doctors (to name just a few) are married to rigid schedules and employers. Pitiful earned time policies and lack of options for women who want to work part time all add up and take their toll on families. In the eyes of employers, our children do not exist. They are neither seen nor heard.

If a woman does take time off to care for her children, it is extremely difficult for her to enter the workforce. The unsaid question is “What did you do all those years that was significant?”

Well, let me tell you what she did:

  • She managed a household and kept a budget, ensuring that her family did not go into debt.
  • She chaperoned hundreds of little kids on field trips, showing her amazing ability to organize.
  • She kept up with children’s extracurricular activities, hustling them back and forth from home to soccer to music to church and then back home.
  • She went to parent teacher organizations and organized plays and dinners for fund raisers.
  • She made sure that immunizations were up to date and kids had braces.
  • She answered to a world that asked her “what she did all day?”.

She could run an entire company single handedly, yet the interview team has the audacity to ask her what she did that was “significant”.

I’m telling you, when it comes to the lack of family friendly workplaces, we need a revolution. It is ridiculous.

So, what are my solutions?  I don’t have solutions, but I do have thoughts.

  • First of all, for god’s sake don’t condemn a woman for her work or home choices. I know how hard it is to make choices on work and home. Every April, I went into a panic thinking about the summer and what I would do in the summer. I got criticism from stay-at-home moms when I went back to work; and I got criticism from working moms when I stayed home. This is what fellow women do to each other and we can’t blame anyone but ourselves — we criticize each other. Remember the mean girls from high school? Well they never really go away. They just have different names and different clothes. They also get a lot meaner.
  • Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever ask a stay-at-home mom what she does all day. I repeat: Never.
  • If you are an employer or manager, please consider offering flexibility. Offer compressed work weeks; offer part time positions; offer job sharing; offer work from home. We are 2017! These should be no brainers.
  • Today’s working women: Fight for better maternity leave. Fight for better time off. Fight for more flexibility.
  • Figure out what works for you and guard your choice. If you choose to work, don’t assume that stay-at-home moms will always be there to help you. If you choose to stay at home or work part time, don’t whine about not going out to dinner as much as you want.

Lastly, always ask yourself the question “Who do I want to like me when I am 80?” I guarantee the answer will not be your employer. I look back all the time and think “I was so often in a hurry, rushing to get kids here or there. What did all that rushing get me?” A sore hip – that’s what it got me.

Brenda Barnes left an interesting and important legacy, one that I wish was talked about more frequently. Her daughter, Erin, was interviewed this past week by NPR and in the interview, she talked about being influenced by her mom to change her own profession. What did she pick? Nursing.

At Brenda’s funeral, her daughter thanked people for coming, saying “My mom would want me to tell you, ‘Don’t work too hard.'”*  Indeed. 

*https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/24/opinion/brenda-barness-wisdom-and-our-anti-parent-workplace.html?_r=0

Isolation or Exposure?

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Is God’s protection realized, not through isolation, but through exposure? 

We had been in Cairo only 2 weeks when our son Joel slipped and hit his head on the sharp edge of a bed.  He sustained an open cut right above his eye. With Joel screaming and bleeding profusely, we somehow made our way to the emergency room in a hospital on the banks of the Nile. A kind doctor took care of the wound, sewing it up with tiny, precise stitches. And as I looked at those beautiful blue eyes of my son, his fear and pain so evident, I just kept on whispering “I’m here Joel. Mommy’s here.”

I went over the scene in my mind many times. If only I had realized how sharp the edge of the bed was; if only I had made a ‘no jumping on the bed rule.’ If only I had been there. If only…..

At heart was the underlying realization that I wasn’t there to protect my son. I couldn’t protect my son from the fall.

When I look back at parenting small children, that is not the only time when I couldn’t protect. I sometimes take in a sharp breath at the memories.Not because anything tragic happened, but because tragedies could have happened, and many times over. From croup that sounded like a wounded puppy in an isolated area with no medical help, to high fevers and salmonella, you cannot parent five children without several ‘catch your breath’ moments.

I think about protection; about how much we want it and need it and pray for it. Protection. Preservation. Safety. Shelter. Refuge. Strength. So many words associated with protection. From the minute our babies are born we are endowed with a fierce need to protect. Our babies are the gap in our armor, the place where an enemy can send a sword and pierce us, sometimes fatally.

Protection. Protect — “[pruhtekt] to defend or guard from attack, invasion, loss, annoyance, insult,etc.; cover or shield from injury or danger.”

But babies grow up and as they grow, our ability to protect diminishes by thousands. No longer are we with them night and day. We let these babies out of our sight. We share them with people, some worthy and others unworthy. We know that this is what makes a healthy adult, but it is not without fear that we release them.

If we are honest, we know that even when they are small a certain amount of danger in the form of germs is a good thing. A healthy immune system is not born of protection but of exposure.

Is the same principle true for life in general? Is a certain amount of danger a good thing? Is a bit of risk necessary? Is God’s protection realized, not through isolation, but through exposure? Do we develop a healthier spirituality through struggle, not through calm? 

Just as we cannot protect our children from everything, we cannot protect ourselves as we go into the unknown of the year. We don’t know the paths where we will trip, the places where we will shudder under the weight of fear.And fear is bad currency. When we make decisions based on fear, we go bankrupt.

Last year my oldest daughter gave me a book by Eula Biss titled On Immunity: An Innoculation. The book comes from the personal experience of researching vaccinations when pregnant with her son. In the first few pages of the book, Biss recounts the familiar story of Achilles. So badly did Achilles mother, Thetis, want to protect him, that she took him by the heel and immersed his body into a river to make him invulnerable to injury. Achilles becomes a famous warrior, but as fate would have it, an arrow finds the one place where he is vulnerable and he is killed.

The point is clear. There is no way we can shield our kids or ourselves from all the danger, sadness, and hurt that comes our way in life; no way we can protect ourselves from the same in this new year.

Instead, I must hold my arms opened in surrender and humility.  The year will come, just as last year did, with joy and with sorrow. It will hold things I will love and things I will hate. There will be times where I feel completely exposed and vulnerable to all that can harm me. But despite the exposure, the potential or probable danger I encounter, I will never be without the presence of God. There is no place that will be hidden from his presence or from his love.

“We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito.”*

Those many years ago, as I looked at those beautiful blue eyes of my son, his fear and pain so evident while the doctor stitched up his wound, I just kept on whispering “I’m here Joel. Mommy’s here.”

I couldn’t protect him, but I could be present. Maybe my presence was enough. 

[Note – This post was revised from one posted one year ago.]

No Easy Answers – A Life Overseas


Readers, my mom and dad were in the country of Pakistan and raised five of us in that context. 

Yesterday on A Life Overseas my mom shared a poignant story on children, choices, and ultimately learning to trust God with our kids. Would you join us there? 
I have included the beginning of the piece here.

Do YOU think it’s right to take innocent children to those heathen countries?”


The small elderly woman confronted me with the question. Ralph and I were newly appointed missionaries hoping to go to India. I glanced down at my tummy- had she guessed I was pregnant? I didn’t think it showed yet. I likely mumbled something about God’s will and tried to change the subject. 

We did take that innocent child with us to Pakistan, not India, and in the next 10 years we had four more. We were 20-somethings, full of hope and excitement and ideals. God in His mercy hid the future with its pain and struggle and tears of raising children overseas from us.

Not too many years later it had become clear to us that for most missionaries’ children in Pakistan boarding school was a part of that future. Our mission actively supported the founding of Murree Christian School in the northern mountains, eight hundred miles from where we lived. Five children from our mission were enrolled in its first year of existence.

“How can the Lord expect such an enormous sacrifice of us?” I asked myself. “It’s too much. I can’t do it. It can’t be right.” I struggled, asking how this could be God’s will for parents to send such young children away from home.
Eddie would start first grade in my home town during our first furlough. This timing put off our painful decision for a year. But God’s call to Pakistan was very clear to both Ralph and me. Did that call have to mean sending our children away at such a tender age?

In February 1959 Ralph went off to Karachi to arrange our furlough travel leaving me at home with the three children, behind the brick walls that surrounded our tiny courtyard. The Addleton family (Hu, Betty and their two little boys) were the only other foreigners in that small town in the desert and suggested we all go to the canal ten miles away for a picnic. Eddie was so excited that we were going to travel on the Queen Mary from England.
“I’m going to sail my Queen Mary in the canal,” he said, showing me the long string he had tied to a nail in the bow of his small wooden boat.

A couple of hours later, he stood at the edge of the canal, throwing his boat into the water and pulling it back. I kept an eye on him, but he was such a careful little boy. He would never fall in – Stan (his younger brother) might, but not Ed. A jeep driving along the dirt canal road, raised clouds of dust, and we checked the whereabouts of each of the children. Assuring they were all safe, we adults sipped mugs of coffee.

I looked around again just as the jeep passed us. Eddie was gone! I couldn’t see him anywhere. I jumped up and called his name, only to see his boat floating down the canal. Hu Addleton dove in, swam to the middle and began treading water, feeling the bottom with his feet. Bettie gathered up the little ones and the picnic things loading them into the Land Rover. I stood, helpless beside the canal. The water was so muddy, the current so swift. How could Hu possibly find my little boy in that murky water?

Then Hu called out, “I’ve found him!” He dove under and came up holding Eddie’s limp body. He handed Eddie up to me and somehow I knew what I had to do – that morning waiting for the Addletons to arrive, I had re-read a Readers’ Digest article about what was then a new method of artificial respiration, called “mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.” Eddie’s face was purple. I cleaned mud and sticks out of his mouth, before turning him onto his stomach to see a gush of water from his mouth. Laying him on his back, I started breathing into his mouth. Hu knelt beside us on that grassy canal bank praying loudly, begging God to give us back our son. How many minutes past, I didn’t know….

Read the rest here

Thanking you for joining us to read this poignant, personal story! 


A House of Cards

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Note: I wrote this piece four years ago, right after my fifth child graduated from high school. Before this past weekend, I felt exactly like this post. Then came the weekend and the gift of rest, the gift of peace. So I’m not in the same place right now. But perhaps some of you are – because all of us have houses of cards in some way or another. 

*****

My house of cards has fallen. I build it up so carefully, all the while realizing that something has to give. We are not created to sustain long periods of stress and yet, stress has been building in my world for months.

On Wednesday, my fifth child graduated from high school. The ceremony was living, breathing evidence of perseverance through adversity. Everyone on stage clothed in a black graduation gown with a cap and tassel has lived more of life than they should have in their short years. And we celebrated. Big time.

With this graduation I ended over 22 years and approximately 4025 days of school; of school functions and lunches; of good teachers and bad teachers and mediocre teachers; of interacting with parents I love and showing grace to parents I don’t love; of fundraisers and so much more. And it was bittersweet. And it was time.

And my strength was gone. Gone like the chewed bones of the ribs that were eaten at the graduation party. Gone like the cups, plates and silverware tossed in the trash for tomorrow’s recycling. Gone like the people who had come, celebrated and left. I wanted to curl up in the fetal position and cry until there were no more tears to cry and my tears had watered every flower, bush and plant in the Boston Public Gardens. Instead I called a friend and sobbed, talking through all the emotions I was feeling.

Strength will rise as we wait upon the Lord, we will wait upon the Lord, we will wait upon the Lord

Sometimes all of life builds up like a house of cards and one little movement sends it crashing down, lying in a jumble of aces, spades, hearts and diamonds.

And that is what happened. My house of cards fell. I have gone on my own strength for so long that it took the tiniest of motions to cause the collapse and demise of my carefully constructed, but pitifully weak, house.

Our God, you reign forever. Our hope, our strong deliverer

After a heavy dose of tears and wise words of a friend, swallowed with a big bottle of self-reflection, I found myself in a place of humility and exhaustion. It was so good. It was so hard. 

You are the everlasting God, the everlasting God. You do not faint, you won’t grow weary 

I have tried to fix and rescue, protect and provide. Only — there are times when it is impossible. When the broken cannot be fixed and the drowning cannot be saved; when those who need protecting need more than our feeble efforts and provisions have run out. And that is where I was. I was weak. I was needy. My strength was gone.

You’re the defender of the weak, you comfort those in need

In the post-tears exhaustion that followed, I surrendered  with smudged mascara, tear coated contact lenses and weary willingness to lean on the One who gives life and the bread of life, the one who lifts us up on wings like eagles.

Strength will rise. Indeed. 

Surviving Summer!


In this two part series Robynn suggests ways to successfully survive summer! 

School is about to get out here in Kansas. For many moms that’s a sweet joy. They anticipate leisurely time with their children, afternoons at the pool, evenings in the park. For the rest of us summer is a stir-fry of a wide range of emotions. We feel joy, panic, loss of routine, guilt, anticipation, dread. These are the moms I have in mind as I write this. I am that mom.

  • Gauge your expectations

I think it’s really important to think through your expectations for the summer. Are you expecting some lazy days? Are you hoping to get a lot of home projects done? Is this the time you’ve set aside to teach your kids to cook? What’s your energy level like? Do you need to plan in extended quiet times? Is your family planning on traveling this summer? Think it through. Be honest with yourself. Schedule a family meeting. Communicate with one another what you’re hoping for from this summer. Monitoring expectations in your own heart, but also in the hearts of your family members is key to summer success. Expectations can dash and disappoint or they can serve to create anticipation and joy.

  • Grace, Grace, Grace!

This is your summer. This is the summer you’ve been given. It doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s. It can be as unique and interesting as you and your family. You can nap, or run, or hide in your bedroom for a few yours every other day. You can cry when your kids cry, scream when they scream, giggle when they giggle. This summer belongs to you. If a day goes awry —that’s ok. There’s grace wide enough for that. If you have a moment with your teenager that you regret–apologize, receive forgiveness. If you forget that you’re the adult for a spell–shake it off, choose to switch gears. There’s grace deep enough for that too. If nothing get’s done on your summer project list, don’t sweat it! There’s mercy that lingers for today and is new for tomorrow. You have what it takes to do this parenting thing with courage. Just show up. Pull your chair up to the table. Live in the grace that is present in each moment.

  • Resist Pinterest; Stay away from Facebook

I recommend severely limiting any type of social media that fosters comparison and secret maternal competitions. Seeing that your friend took her kids to an art class and the masterpieces they each produced makes your attempts to hand paper and paints and brushes to your kid with instructions to go outside seem minor and ineffectual. Watching your cousin’s vacation videos only serves to stir up envy and shame that you’ll never be able to afford to take your family to the same places. Even pictures of other families playing board games show the laughter and the joy, they don’t reveal the kid that storms off in anger, the older sibling taunting the younger for losing. Ugly moments don’t tend to get Instagrammed!

  • Screens aren’t as evil as they say—everything in moderation

Nothing brings on shame in parents quicker than admitting that their kid spent 5-7 hours watching TV or Netflix that day! I know because I’ve had that day. There’s nothing wrong with a little screen time. With Netflix and cable TV and a library full of movies we have endless options of good programming. Setting limits is probably a good idea but do so with grace and flexibility. Each day has enough worries of it’s own.

  • Books are better than screens

There really is nothing better than a good book. I love having my nose in a good book. I love it when my kids are all reading good books. Most local libraries have summer reading programs but if you don’t have access to a library or if your library doesn’t promote a summer reading program create your own! Set prizes and rewards for reading books. I know, theoretically the book itself is reward enough…but I’m not beyond bribery to help a kid live into that fact. We’ve even paid our older teens to read specific books on managing finances and creating budgets! If you’re stumped to know how to help your child find a good book there are countless lists available on line.

  • Summer Bridge

Early on when we first returned to North America I discovered Summer Bridge workbooks. These workbooks help a child stay tuned into math and reading. They prevent brain paralysis over the summer. Knowing my kids were spending fifteen minutes a day thinking made me feel better as a mom—and really, who are we kidding, that’s what matters!

  • Slow yourself down

This brings us full circle back to attending to our expectations. I think it helps to deliberately slow yourself down. It’s hard to herd cats. It’s hard to rush kids—of any age! Breathing slower. Relaxing your own pace helps significantly.

  • Boredom Busted!

Don’t fall for the Boredom blues! Boredom might likely be an indicator of a lazy brain or a restless spirit. One of my (many!) pet peeves is the line, “I’m bored!” Several summers ago I implemented the Boredom Buster jar. Every time a child of mine lamented, “I’m bored!” I pulled out the jar. In the jar I had written every conceivable chore I could think of –most were jobs I’d been putting off for ages, things I really didn’t want to do myself! Clean the ceiling fans, sweep the front porch, pull dandelions, empty the fridge and wipe it down, wash the stairs. For the first two weeks of that summer I got so much work done! After that the kids paused before singing the old “I’m bored” chorus, they found things to do on their own. My Boredom Buster jar encouraged creativity!

  • Plan in adult conversation

This is key! No matter the ages of your children, it’s vital to your sanity to ensure you’ve planned stimulating adult conversation into your week. Meet another parent and their tribe at the park. If you have older kids is there a mom out there with younger kids that you could connect with? Have your kids babysit her kids while the two of you connect over ice tea or frozen lattes. Plan it out. Knowing this is on the calendar will give you hope in the middle of another conversation about Sponge Bob Square pants or Dora the Explorer.

 

A Note to Moms who Work Outside the Home:

You women are amazing! Here are a couple of things I want to say to you in particular:

  1. Learn to marinate your soul in a daily GRACE wash. You are a good mother. Your mothering is broader than this summer.
  2. Arrange good childcare for your kids. Do what needs to be done to provide safe and healthy care for each of your children. It might look different for each kid each summer.
  3. Communicate that plan to your kids without apology.
  4. Don’t skimp on self-care and rest and adult conversation. This is vital to you continuing on in your mothering role with any amount of joy!

 

With Hearts Outside our Bodies

heart outside your body

A few years ago, a good friend and I were talking about our children. How we loved them, how we were exasperated by them, how we struggled to parent well, mostly how we hurt when they hurt. She talked about a quote she had read somewhere, that when we have children we wear our hearts outside our bodies.

We walk with our hearts outside our bodies.

I later found the full quote: “Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”*

Think of the heart, the most important organ in our bodies. Our hearts make sure the rest of our cells and other vital organs get oxygen in order to function effectively. They are well protected behind skin, muscle, and the strong bone barrier of our rib cage — it takes a bullet to get to our heart.

That’s the physical heart. That other heart, the heart that holds our love and emotion is not so well shielded. And with the coming of children, any skin, muscle, or ribs that we had lose all their efficacy. We lose any semblance of protective covering; suddenly our hearts are on the outside of our bodies, vulnerable and exposed for all the world to see and hurt, taunt and discard.

With five children, my heart has been outside my body and exposed for a long time.  Each child has their own place, their own shape, in my heart. With adult children, I can only witness what they allow me to witness, can only be a part of what they let me see. The range of emotions that I experience are extreme. There are times when the temptation to burst into tears is ever with me; those watery, salty drops at the ready. Other times my joy is palpable. Still other times, I feel angry and rage at these wretched people that I gave birth to. My heart is outside my body.

And I think that’s what happened with God when he decided that we, above all other animals, would be in relationship with him. He put his heart outside his body. He walked with his heart outside his body. He would hurt for us. He would rage at us. He would have compassion on us. And if that was not enough, when he decided to reveal himself through Jesus, his heart was further outside his body.

The heart of God was outside his body. And we broke it.

Gone was any rib cage of protection. Gone was the skin and muscle that could guard. “My God, My God Why Have you forsaken me” echoed to the Heavens. The God of the universe had put his heart outside his body in the form of his beloved Son.

In the most extreme act of love that the world would ever witness, God wore his heart outside his body and all of life changed.  It’s an amazing mystery. 

In my faith tradition, this week is Holy Week. All week we will remember in a special way this life-giving sacrifice. We will remember that God put his heart outside his body and all of life changed. 

*Elizabeth Stone

Note: This post is a reworking of an old post.

A Primer in Parenting–Part 3

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

 

And that’s our list. That’s how Lowell and I have decided to guide our three precious kids to Jesus. We have no idea if what we’re doing will work! Every day feels a little risky. Every parenting decision feels somewhat precarious. And yet we step out in faith, believing in the Good Parent who loves us, his children, deeply and who is more committed to our children (who are also his children) than we could ever be.

 

A Primer in Parenting–Part 2

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Part two: Bible Trivia. Shmible Shnivia.

Robynn continues unpacking the list she and Lowell have followed as they’ve attempted to raise their children in the Faith. “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. Bible Trivia. Shmible Shnivia.

If you put your kids up against my kids in a Bible trivia game my kids will lose. They don’t know the Books of the Bible song. I don’t think they’ve ever played Bible Sword Drill in their lives. Some of the things they spout from scripture are horrifying, mixed up names, confused stories. However if you think about it that’s really not what we’re trying to do as parents, is it? We’re not wanting to raise Trivia Pursuits champions; we’re wanting to raise children who understand the overall story of the Bible, the story of redemption, the story of a God who seeks after them and their neighbours and the world with relentless love and compassion. Bible knowledge is certainly important. But knowing God and being known by God are infinitely more important.

  1. Try not to freak out at their doubt and their questions.

We’ve raised our children to be thinkers. We want them to ask questions, to explore, to wonder. We don’t want them to accept things at face value. It’s true with the media. (I want them to question the messages their served up).

But it’s also true with the church. Here too, I want them to cogitate, contemplate and consider. I want them to dig deeper. I long for them to see past the cultural costumes we’ve clothed our faith in. I want them to own their faith…and in order for that to happen they have to take it deep inside their souls and shake it out, and try it on for size. As difficult and time-consuming as it is, I need to resist the temptation to treat their questions as moles that pop up in that arcade game popular at state fairs. Sometimes I want to whack those moles back into place. It’s more convenient. But I think the healthier option is to engage the mole, calmly let it look around, and ultimately let the mole give voice to his curiosities.

  1. Talk about our values.

Our kids hear us talk all the time. They hear us talk about the books we read. We’ve debated policy issues and dissected political issues. They hear us rant about issues of justice. They’ve seen me cry for the pain of the suffering or the plight of the poor. We’ve talked at length about money and faith and climate change; about war and education and equality and a fuller definition of redemption. We talk a lot at this house… and most all of it reflects our values. The other day our 16 year old was wanting (again) to play a video game that is known for its violence. In exasperation he retorted that when he’s on his own he’ll play whatever game he wants to. I replied (almost) calmly that it was our job as parents to pass on our values to him but he could ultimately choose which ones he keeps and which ones he sets aside. Certainly they’ve heard our hearts and the things that are important to us. Maybe (hopefully) some of it has stuck.

  1. Modeling…lots of modeling.

Our kids have seen us seek out Jesus. Each morning when they rise they see us sitting in our chairs with our coffee and contemplations in full swing. They’ve watched us volunteer at the church and in the community. We are gentle activists and they’ve had a front row seat to our activity and our protests and our push for justice. I can only hope that some of it has changed them. I pray that they see us and they’re taking some of us inside of who they will be.

  1. Expose them to great people.

We go to a great church. We rub shoulders with interesting people who do interesting things. We want our kids to know these people; to experience their passions and personalities up close. These great people have so much they could teach our kids. I want my kids to have that opportunity. I also want them to be surrounded by a community of caring adults in case they ever need someone. If our relationships ever sour I want them to know the safety of a larger circle of people that have lovingly encircled them since they were very young.

For Part 1 of the series go here.

Stay tuned for Part 3 on Friday.

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.

Dear New Mom – Part 2

  
Dear New Mom,

A year ago I wrote a letter to you. I saw you on the subway, and you had that amazing look, a look I know so well — the look of a woman in love with her newborn.

So I wrote to you, and I meant every word that I said. Now, your baby is just over a year old, and the glow is gone, but it’s replaced by more maturity and tenacity. A year in and you know some of the work this thing called motherhood takes — it has its moments, doesn’t it? Still, each step, each word – it’s all amazing.

And of course, if you didn’t know before, you know now that every writer, blogger, researcher, celebrity, and Russian babushka has an opinion and expresses that opinion about everything from tummy time to tuna.

This past week, I found myself sorting through old pictures and just like that, I was taken back to a time when I was you — watching this little person become. So I thought back to the letter I wrote last year and I’m adding my voice to the chorus. I ask for you to forgive me when I get it wrong.

First off, there are those who tell you that you really don’t know what it’s like to be a mom since you only have one child….AS IF!! That’s just crazy talk right there! Yes you do my friend! Okay, you may not know what it’s like to be a mom of five, but you sure know what it’s like to be a mom of one. We just have to stop this crazy comparison talk. Just because I have five, doesn’t mean a mom with one doesn’t know what it’s like to be a mom. A mom with six kids is not more of a mom than you are. A mom who adopts is not less of a mom! If you have a child, you’re a mom and that’s it.

Don’t be afraid to travel with your child. Take them early and often. Yes, it’s a lot of work, but you will feel like superwoman when you’ve gone on even a short trip with them. It’s  amazing. I remember traveling to Greece with four kids under six, the youngest was four months old. Two of them got chicken pox on the airplane. I learned that I could do anything, anything if I could do that! You’ll feel the same traveling with your toddler! You will know that you are superwoman!

You’ve likely now had people give you the “first year advice.” It may have been over supporting your baby’s head while you were holding her; it may have been over not keeping them warm enough, or because you made the mistake of breast feeding in public, or pulling out a bottle of formula. Likely you could sometimes laugh, but other times it felt so hard and destructive, and when you got home you dissolved into a puddle of tears. It’s so hard, right? You don’t want to be rude, but you really need to be given space. Remember how in last year’s letter I told you about safe space? Know your safe spaces and your safe people – be nice to others, but don’t let them into that space. I learned to listen to some people, and to others, I had to quietly blow words away. To make it fun, put away a dime for every time someone gives you advice. You will get rich so quick – it will be awesome.

You are smart! Sometimes the loud voices forget that we are smart, and that we are capable of figuring this out for ourselves without a 24-7 diet of information. Trust your intuition because you are probably right.

If you want to dress your kids like they belong on wedding cakes, then you do it! I don’t regret one bow tie or ruffle. It was so much fun dressing those kids, and believe me, the time will come when they will have none of it so just enjoy it while it lasts.

Enjoy the process. It’s so easy to wish our lives away and forget the moments. And I am going to be annoying here and say this: It goes really fast. It doesn’t feel like it does, but as I looked back over my pictures, I was lost in the smiles that good memories bring. We had so much fun. Fun at bath time, fun on picnics, fun on airplanes. There was a lot of joy in the midst of all that growing.

I have to say new mom, that you are my favorite! I am so on your side, and I apologize from my generation for making you believe that you can do it all – because if there is one thing I know — you can’t do it all. Something has to give, and unfortunately it’s usually us. So go with grit and grace, there are a lot of us older moms on your side.

Love, Marilyn [yes – that IS me in the picture – I always made sure I had a nice bathrobe for pictures like that.]

P.S. I ate tuna while I was pregnant.  Lots and lots of tuna. And it’s likely that your child will be potty-trained when they are 13, so don’t buy into this “They aren’t potty-trained yet?! (said with incredulity) Mine’s been potty-trained since ___!” And the point is….?

 

It’s Okay Not to Know

It’s tough to be a junior (grade 11) in high school. There are so many pressures. This is the year many students choose a college, a career, a life. Lowell and I watched Connor stumble through the agonies of these seemingly huge decisions. Now we’re watching Adelaide do the same.

Of course as adults we know that not all of this has to be decided right now. But the air these 17 year olds breath dictates something else. They are being led to believe that they have to know. And they have to know RIGHT NOW. All the years of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” seem to culminate now. They have to face grown up living and decide what they want to be. The answers they’ve used their whole lives–nurse, teacher, fire fighter– don’t necessarily fit anymore. The options are broader. There are more choices. What do they want to do for the rest of their lives? Who do they want to be?

But really, it’s okay not to know.

We who have crossed over into the other side –the adult side—look back and smile. We remember the need to know. The need to know immediately. And then we shake our heads and remember the stories of how we lived along into it. We remember the series of little decisions, the circumstances that led us to that particular job, that particular college, that particular summer trip, that particular major. We laugh out loud at the plot twists and the mis-twists that resulted in us having to re-do that, or retake this.

This is a trustworthy saying for all of us. Seventeen and 18 and 19 year olds can all be reassured: it’s ok not to know. And to the adults in the room—those whose frontal lobes are fully formed, those who’ve lived longer than 25, or 45, or 65 years: it’s ok not to know.

Not knowing, of course, means waiting and living past the urgency, into the answer. There’s just no two ways about it, waiting is impossibly agonizing, particularly for the young who have no broader context, or longer experience. They have no proof that waiting results in any answers. There’s not yet any life experience to demonstrate that. It’s difficult for those of us who are older too. We seem to forget previous times when we’ve waited and the answers have finally come. The fingers of inpatience tap out a troubled tune in our agitated spirits and we find it difficult to settle into the wait. We all want answers now.

I was reading a book this week, as part of my Spiritual Direction training, The Good Life, by Richard M. Gula. In it Gula says that the Christ follower should approach ‘the good life’ with, “the conviction that this life has already been lived by Jesus.” He goes on to say,

…we do ourselves no favors by ignoring (Jesus’) humanity and (by) saying that he knew everything because he was God… as a human, he had to discover who he was and what God was asking of him just as we do, step by step. (At) the core of humanity (is)the call to search and discover our way through failure and groping and finally coming up with something new(.) Our great pain and our great joy is in asking, “What’s it all about?” and gradually discovering the answer. (The Good Life, Gula, 1999).

An integral part of living is living! Things don’t just happen. Time reveals options. We research, deliberate, pray and wait. We make choices in the moment. Looming deadlines and final notices come and go. We ride out our fears and discover, much to our surprise, that they do not destroy us. Constantly appealing to God, we follow after him, as Gula said, step by step. Faithfully he helps us with the little choices and eventually we look back and see the big decisions were made smaller by those little choices and by his persistent help.

It turns out it was okay not to know. In not knowing the big answers, we did what we knew with the little choices, and lived along into that expansive space, past the demanding question’s tyranny, into the answer.

To all the high school juniors, all the 17 and 18 year olds out there—to Adelaide and her cohorts—I say this: It really is okay not to know. Life, jumping from one stepping stone to the next, is a grand adventure. It maybe feels scary to not know what’s ahead. But it’s also exhilirating and a little thrilling to leap from choice to choice. The adults in your life didn’t know, at your age, how the story would play out. Truth be told they don’t know what the next chapter holds now either.

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. –Rainer Marie Rilke