Monday, March 29, 2010

The Curious Blessing of Divided Attention

After a week with puppy, I'm realizing that the most surprising gift Merlot brings our family is the curious blessing of divided attention.  Because I have to watch her like a hawk to ensure she is not "eliminating" in the house or chewing on something that isn't hers or harassing the kids too enthusiastically, I no longer have time to pay attention to every little thing the kids are doing.  And strangely, this reduced attentiveness is good.

Before Merlot came home, my eagle-eye attention to detail was focused unrelentingly on Ben and Abby: their manners, their treatment of each other, their squabbles, their behavior good and bad.  This is my job as their mother, but I think my focus tended to be too critical at times, too nit-picky, too comprehensive, not selective enough.  No one needs someone paying attention to every little decision all day long.  We all do better with a little breathing room.

Merlot's presence has created a blessed distraction from my worrying and their childishness.  Now, I more prone to notice the things that truly need noticing, and I'm finding the kids work out the rest pretty proficiently on their own.  As I coach them through their interactions with Merlot, I find ample opportunity for praise and encouragement and constructive feedback.  With my hands full of treats and leashes and dog toys, I can no longer help as readily as I used to, so they are gently pushed into another level of self-reliance.

And because I'm forced into paying close attention to what Merlot is doing, I am more "present" in the moment than I have been, less prone to get lost in e-mail or household chores.  I can't leave the kids and Merlot alone together, so when they're all together in the family room, I am there, too--working on puzzles, playing games, zooming cars, helping the kids train Merlot.  Our time together has been more focused, more intentional, and more enjoyable.  We're all participating in this joint adventure of puppy love, and we all seem happier as we work together as partners in training.  Rather than squaring off in unnecessary power struggles, we work shoulder to shoulder toward a common end.  My kids respect my instruction, I value their cooperation and help, and we all see the fruits in Merlot's learning and progress.

I knew we would all love petting the puppy, admiring her giant paws, laughing at her silly antics, and receiving her sweet affections.  I did not anticipate how her presence would improve our relationships with each other.  It has been a pleasant surprise and makes the frustrating and crazy moments worthwhile.

Merlot has wagged her way into our hearts and become a favorite family room fixture.  More importantly, she has bred a kindredness among the four of us that is fresh and healthy and good, really good.  At the rehearsal dinner I attended last weekend, the groom said that when we ask God for a gift, He gives good gifts--the kind that continue to reveal their value and blessing day after day.  I prayed fervently that if we got a dog, God would bring the right dog to our family.  I believe we have her, and this gift keeps giving.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Our New Addition

In case a four year old and a two year old weren't challenge enough, Josh and I decided to invite a puppy into our home: Merlot came home Sunday, and there's nothing like adding another variable to life to make you appreciate how "simple" the days were before.

She's actually ridiculously sweet, content to be petted and loved for as long as someone is willing.  She sleeps like I thought our children would when they were infants--for hours at a time day and night.  She's figuring out that the bathroom is outdoors, she's learning to sit for attention, and while she sometimes gets carried away with Abby, our other "puppy," she's generally quite unexcitable with the kids.

She is a ton of work, and it's hard to go back to that state of constant vigilance required when a newbie is learning the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable, how the house runs, and what the ground rules are.  It feels like having a newly walking toddler in the family.

There are times I wonder if the kids will grow resentful of all the time she requires or if the constant supervision and training and teaching and instruction will cause the pup to lose her appeal.  But so far, the kids have listened willingly and followed-through beautifully as we've taught them how to teach her. Even after periods of stressful interaction when Merlot has jumped or nipped or when the activity level in the house has exceeded my level of tolerance, the kids still say how much they love her or comment on how cute she is or pray for her at bedtime.  Somehow, they're taking the bad with the good, the frustrating with the endearing as readily as they accept each other.  If I may say so, it's incredible to watch.  I'm not naive enough to think they'll never grow disillusioned with this bundle of needs, but I'm encouraged by their response thus far.

What is sobering is the realization that this puppy will pass both Ben and Abby in size in a matter of mere months.  This leaves little room for error in our training endeavors.  As novice dog owners, this reality is a bit overwhelming and contributes to that "What have we done?!?!" feeling that creeps up in the more chaotic moments.  

But, as with everything in life right now, we're embracing her with faith, hope, and love, trusting that she's the right dog for our family and that the investment of time and energy now will reap dividends in the months and years to come.  Already, it is sweet to watch the kids' confidence grow before our eyes as they learn how to handle her boisterous affection and see how we encourage her successes and watch as we gently but firmly correct her mistakes.  Deep down, as difficult as some moments have been, I think it's really good for all of us.

Right now, I'm alternating between typing and praising her for her extraordinary valiance in the face of the vacuum.  Life has become more divided again, the demands more consuming.  At times I wonder why.  But I realize it's an investment in relationship resulting in love and life abundant.  Like all truly worthwhile endeavors, it's short-term pain for long-term gain.

Here's to many years of fun and companionship, Merlot.  Welcome to the family!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Anticipating the Others

I breathed a huge sigh of relief Friday night.

I attended the rehearsal dinner for a bride whose family I've known for over fifteen years. After thanking all their guests who had traveled from near and far, the couple took time to honor the role each person present had played in bringing them to readiness for a lifetime commitment to each other.  It was a sacred time, and truly incredible to hear how this group of otherwise strangers had impacted two people.

They spoke for nearly two hours, though it didn't seem long.  There were people there whom they'd known since babyhood, friends from college, colleagues turned cherished confidantes, roommates, mentors, family companions, and lots of family.  The bride and groom spoke of the myriad ways these people had invested in and encouraged them,  of the significant influence they'd had in shaping who they are today: from rafting miles and miles into the ocean to funding education to counseling them as they faced and surmounted rocky terrain in their relationship to simply standing witness to the many milestones in their lives thus far.  The tapestry of stories was lovely and meaningful and, frankly, awe-inspiring.

And I realized that Ben and Abby will have their own toasts to give some day, their own stories to tell, their own entourage of supporters and cheerleaders and mentors and faithful friends to thank for helping them become the man and woman they will be when they stand at the altar and exchange vows with another person who's been guided and shepherded and encouraged and loved by his or her own entourage of faithful and willing supporters.

Sometimes, in these precious fleeting years when they're so small, it feels that their path in this world will be shaped for better or for worse by me and Josh.  But I realize that our children already have some other remarkable individuals who consistently take time to know them and love them and acknowledge their gifts and encourage their interests.  And this sphere of influence will only widen, will only grow more diverse and more specialized.

Soon teachers and coaches and classmates will join the ranks of the life-altering.  Later, friends and their parents, roommates, coworkers, mentors, amazing people they happen to run into at some ordinary, unremarkable time who will become major characters in their stories--these, too, will step in to shoulder the weight of growing them into maturity.  Eventually, they may marry and have children, and then they will have to confront who they are and who they want to be with an honesty and clarity heretofore unknown.

I witnessed Friday night the proverbial village at work with and, at times, in spite of their parents.  Building on their parents' successes and strengths.  Redeeming their parents' failures and mistakes.  Frankly, it was so much less about their moms and dads and so much more about the extraordinary symphony of people and events that God composed for a young man and young woman who are now husband and wife.  It was beautiful to behold: a masterpiece, really.

Seeing this provision has relieved me of a good deal of responsibility and angst.  I am a part--a significant part, perhaps--of Ben and Abby's stories, but just a part nonetheless.  Now, as I endeavor daily to raise them with all that I am--good, bad, and otherwise--I also anticipate and look forward, in faith, to seeing the rest of the ensemble appear.

Thank you all, whoever you may be.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

What I'm Enjoying at the Moment...

Sea air and solitude.  Harbor seals frolicking in the bay then flopping on the nearest sun-drenched rock.  Cypress trees, seagulls, skies of blue, and the sweet smell of flowers blooming on the trail from here to there.

Other people's children.  Other people working.  Other people vacationing.  

And the constant backdrop of salt water drifting in, millions of ripples moving in synchrony towards the shore, churning in creamy foam when they arrive from the horizon.

But mostly the sea air and solitude.

Josh and I are in Monterey together for a few days.  He's attending a conference, and I get to just be.  The kids are playing securely in Grandma and Grandpa's love and affection.  I imagine they miss us in the quieter moments between giggles and games just as our thoughts turn to them in the space between our delights here.

It is at once completely familiar and completely novel to move about my day without them.

I simultaneously miss them and cherish each moment I have to myself.  I imagine watching the seals with them and then return to the pressing decision of where to settle in for a glorious afternoon of reading and writing without interruption.

Motherhood has changed everything and nothing.

I suppose it's because I am still me, but now I am also more, belonging as much to Ben and Abby and Josh as to myself.

It's nice to realize that, though life is different, below the roles and circumstances I am not.  In the sea air and the company of myself, I am content.  And when Josh and I return to those precious blondies sleeping soundly at Grandma and Grandpa's, I am content.

Wherever I find myself in the journey from horizon to shore, I am, and this understanding is good.


Thursday, March 11, 2010

Ode to Spring

Having grown up in California, I never truly appreciated the spring until I moved to Boston for college and experienced for myself the long, frigid days of winter, the frozen dormancy of everything, the monochromatic landscape of gray and brown stretching horizon to horizon for months and months on end. Winter reigns the calendar there, surrendering its rule for only a few months of summer with a couple weeks of spring and a few weeks of fall to bookend the respite.

In California, winter is just a name we give to the months when the temperature drops to jacket-wearing weather.  There may be fewer flowers, and some trees lose their leaves, but the landscape remains vibrant, filled with bushes and shrubs and plants and trees that retain their luster in the mild temperatures of the Sunshine State, the hillsides and valleys rendered greener than any other time of the year by the winter rains.  Most outdoor activities exist year round in California; schools have outdoor hallways and passing areas.  Little changes from season to season aside from adding an extra layer or two for warmth.  This is California's blessing.

But it does create a void: a void of longing that, elsewhere, is joyously and enthusiastically met in spring.  It lacks the communal celebration that occurs in those places where everyone has survived together yet another storm, yet another cold spell, yet another winter.  It wants the collective anticipation of warm breezes and open windows and the novelty of sun on bare skin.  It misses the communion of neighbors reacquainting after a winter hunkered down indoors.  

Here in Colorado, our weather is somewhere in between--cold, cold temperatures with lots of sunshine; landscapes at times covered entirely in gorgeous snow, at other times slumping in their brown and barren desolation.  We are not buried in ice for months on end, but we do not have the luxury of simply throwing on a sweatshirt to play at the park.  The cold is more forgiving, or at least more relenting than Boston's, but we still yearn for March when the temperatures occasionally reach sixty and playing outside becomes enjoyable rather than merely survivable.

It's a funny time of year here, a time when I literally watch the trees bud, see the blossoms swell, witness the leaves sprout only to see the entire symphony of life bowed over by inches of snow.  It is not uncommon here to wear flip-flops one seventy-degree day and snow boots the next as we uncover our driveway from the latest blizzard.  It's absolutely nuts.  But it's glorious, because we get a taste of the summer life waiting just around the corner.  It whets the appetite for sunscreen and t-shirts and long mornings at the park and longer afternoons riding bikes and kicking balls and blowing bubbles in the yard.

The kids ask me what spring is, and I tell them it's the time when some days feel like winter and other days feel like summer.  We've been listening to Vivaldi's Four Seasons in the car lately, and they're enthralled with "La Primavera."  We listen and talk about why it sounds like spring: crescendos and happy melodies and triumphal rhythms mimicking the explosion of growth and life and activity around us.

There are times I miss California and think how nice it would be to raise children in a place where the park was a legitimate option most days.  I imagine what it would be like to wash my car and have it remain relatively clean for more than two or three days at a time.  I daydream about the ease of schlepping kids from here to there without all the winter paraphenalia.  

But there is something about spring that is too precious to give up now that I understand it, now that I actually feel it.  It has taught me something about waiting and anticipating, about appreciating tiny buds and shoots and growths--small promises of the invisible world at work beneath the surface, about enduring the barrenness and believing its temporality.  It's a season that ministers to the small hopes I nurture for myself, for my family, for the world.

Somehow, spring is worth surviving winter.


Monday, March 8, 2010

Mommies, Children, Puppy, Sermon

I've missed being here.

But the week I've had has been worth the sacrifice.  It was a hard week, busy and full and exhausting with a lot of hope and expectation and uncertainty hanging in the balance, but those kinds of days and weeks often offer the very best rewards for our efforts.

The climax of the last seven days occurred Friday, when I was given the opportunity to share my heart with some remarkable women and fellow moms at the church we call home.  I spent most of the week preparing, which largely amounted to a lot of head-spinning and swirling reflection: so many thoughts and ideas about this impossible job, so many stories of failure and redemption, so much to share about coming to the end of myself as a mother and having to step into faith and hope and love in Jesus--and in my kids.  I eventually found some kind of direction through the ocean of possible approaches.  The waters finally parted in my mind to make way for a coherent story, and--as is the case anytime we dare to reveal our heart in its deepest, truest sense within a community that embraces rather than judges frailty--it was good.  For me.  And I think for them.  There is a collective relief in confession and in an acknowledgement of what is true.  It begins to crack open our heart and mind to something greater than our confines of fear.  This is fellowship, communion, the proverbial village at its best.  If only we had more of it...

Then Saturday, after the first long, full night of sleep I'd had since Monday, Ben and I had a lunch date after my spin class at the rec center.  We sat next to each other at the table eating our vegetables and then our pizza, talking about the basketball game on the t.v. nearby.  Our time together was simple but sweet.  He asked if he could get Mike & Ikes from the candy machine after our lunch, and I agreed.  It's a date, after all.  To my surprise, he turned down honey on his crust (a tradition specific to BeauJo's pizza here in Colorado), noting that his body probably didn't need two sweets.  I was so proud of his budding awareness of nutrition, of his ability to take care of himself with such discipline.  I think I smiled all the way home at this evidence of his developing decision-making skills, this small confirmation that the work of handing over decisions and responsibility does, indeed, pay off eventually.  We don't always get to see the fruits of our parenting labors so clearly, so I accepted this glimpse as a gift.

The highlight of the weekend came Saturday afternoon, when we trekked to Loveland--over an hour and a half drive from our house--to see the puppy that will soon be ours.  We hadn't known which puppy would be ours when we visited the litter a week ago, so we hadn't paid particular attention to their personalities.  After spending the afternoon observing and playing, any reservation I had about this puppy endeavor vanished.  There will be hard work and frustrating moments without question, but I am convinced Merlot will be the perfect addition to our family: warm, affectionate, drawn to people and to us, playful but also the first to lay down on the sidelines and watch the others in their puppy play.  Abby, who acts much like a puppy herself, excited the pups in her exuberance, often resulting in a barrage of jumping up and barking.  Merlot found her interesting but responded with the least excitability, attracted to our bouncing, shrieking, giggling girl without losing herself.  If she can handle Abby, she can handle anything, I'm sure.  Now to potty train a two-year-old and house train a puppy at the same time--let the chocolate chips and doggy treats roll!

I think what made this week so sweet for me was several small fruitions of hope (which our pastor, in the midst of yet another profound sermon, pointed out is by definition a hole, a longing, a desire as yet unfulfilled).  Hope hurts at times, aches.  But I realize it also keeps us alive.  This week represented a small taste of hope fulfilled: in being received and understood by a community of women, in witnessing Ben's self-discipline, in seeing a hint that we have, in fact, found the right dog for our family.  All these holes of uncertainty that represent my hopes, big and small, profound and mundane--for a community of moms who can speak truth into each other and their children, for a child who will learn to make his way in the world, for a pup that will bring more joy than trouble to our home--they all filled in a little bit, making it easier to have faith in what is to come, increasing my willingness to hope even more.

Abby has a lovely book called All the World which surveys the simple, ordinary, everyday elements of life and then speaks to their great significance.  It begins, "Rock, stone, pebble, sand.  Body, shoulder, arm, hand.  A moat to dig, a shell to keep.  All the world is wide and deep."  It continues this way throughout the book before ending, "Hope and peace and love and trust.  All the world is all of us." I love this story, made especially precious by the little voices next to me who recite it from start to finish.

For me, this week was "Think, write, speak, listen.  Mommies, children, puppy, sermon.  A life to share at home, out there.  Hope and faith grow everywhere."

It was an eventful week for me, and it was good.   But it's nice to be back here sharing it with you.


Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Beyond Obedience Training

There have been a few times when reading dog training books has felt a little like reading the gospel, when I've wanted to stand up and shout, "Yes, yes, yes!  Exactly!" (a strange and unexpected reaction, I'll admit).  Patricia McConnell's book The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs explores the inherently different nature of humans and dogs and how our species-specific ways of communicating get us into trouble with each other.  Based on this understanding of canine behavior and communication, she makes a case for benevolent leadership with tips for successful training.  Much of what makes a good trainer, it seems, is the same as what makes a good parent: clear boundaries, plenty of praise for good behavior, consistency, and redirection to what is acceptable rather than harping on what isn't.

(Interesting aside and canine tip of the day: as humans, our first instinct when we see a dog is to lean forward into their space, reach our hand over their head, and pet them; this frontal approach with our hands raised is how we greet other humans and comes naturally.  Dogs, however, interpret this move as a dominance display and may even feel threatened; they'll tolerate it from humans they know and love but would much prefer to be approached from the side and rubbed under the chin or on the chest.  Pay attention next time you or someone else greets a dog: you may find they duck their head or back away or grow tense.  I've been observing it ever since I read about it.  Who knew?)

The parts of the book that have resonated most are those that address leadership and motivation.  Much of what I'm reading boils down to the idea that we want our dogs to do what we ask because they want to, because they believe it's in their best interest, not because they are afraid.  This concept parallels my desire for my own kids.  I want my children to make good decisions not because I make them do the right thing or because I told them to and they're afraid of me but because they know life will go better for them if they do, because they know it is in their best interest to make that decision.  

McConnell writes this:  "So much of old-fashioned obedience training could be summarized as, 'Do it because I told you to, and if you don't, I'll hurt you.'  The assumption seemed to be that dogs should do what we say because we told them to: after all, we're the humans and they're the dogs, and surely humans have more social status than dogs.  If a dog didn't obey, then he was challenging his owner's social status and needed to be forcibly disciplined to be kept in his place...Many people use force because of the myth of 'getting dominance' over their dogs.  But yelling at a dog, reaching for her collar, and shaking her is a very primate thing to do, not something that she will inherently understand.  It might make her afraid of you, and it might make her pay a lot of attention to you, but it won't teach her what you'd like her to do.  Giving a dog a hard jerk on her collar is like rapping a child's hand in school when she gets the wrong answer.  It may make the child afraid of making a mistake, but it doesn't do anything to teach her the right answer" (p. 147-148, 182).
I'll confess there are many, many times I wish my kids would just obey.  There are times when I feel affronted by their behavior, when I think, "How dare you ______ (insert irritating, disrespectful, or immature behavior here)."  I am the adult; they are the child.  Don't they know I know better than they do?  Don't they know our lives would be easier if they would just comply?  Those are the moments when I'm tempted to try to make them do something rather than frame the moment as a learning opportunity.  McConnell discusses the irony that force (she means physical but regarding the kids I mean emotional or authoritative force), which seems powerful, in fact, is only necessary when we lack power.  It may be effective in the moment, but no true learning occurs.  

The moments I feel most enraged, most angry, most inclined to rant or rave or punish are the moments when I find myself without power, when I've backed myself into a corner--often over a power struggle I shouldn't be in in the first place--and don't know what to do.  Regrettably, I've done a lot of damage in the name of authority--it's an ugly place but one I'm learning to avoid more successfully each day.  If my kids and I are pitted against each other in this kind of emotionally charged situation, I'm better off stepping away than coming on as the you-do-it-or-else mommy.  No learning occurs when we're in fight-or-flight mode.  When I find we're headed to this lose-lose realm, I'm beginning to use the phrase, "We'll talk about this later.  I make better decisions when I'm calm."  I buy myself time to figure out a legitimate consequence, they see a model of self-control even when tempers are flaring, the relationship is preserved, and we do not suffer the emotional fall-out of an authority trip.  

Sometimes I fail.  Sometimes I succeed.  Always I learn.  This is how it should be for my kids.

If my goal were to teach my children to do what others say, then this model of "obedience training" might be effective.  But it's not.  My goal is to help my children learn to think and make good decisions for themselves, whether someone is telling them to or not.  I want them to have the confidence to make hard decisions when offered a ride home from a drunk friend, when handed the drug-du-jour, when asked to compromise their values, when tempted to cheat, lie, or steal--not because they're afraid of what Mom and Dad might say if they find out but because they're thinking about the consequence for themselves.  This confidence can only come from experience, and I pray to God they don't gain that experience in a situation with potentially fatal or irreversible consequences.  So I have to let them think for themselves now, make their own decisions now, fail now, feel the small, insignificant but nevertheless painful consequences now so that they learn how to choose.

I already see it working.  Ben is only four yet he demonstrates such incredible thinking skills, such sound judgement.  I never have to haggle with Ben over whether or not to bring or wear a coat; he has learned to trust me when I say it's pretty cold outside--not because I've made him wear a coat every time but because I've given him the freedom not to wear it, and he's experienced being cold.  It didn't take long for him to realize it may be best to wear it, or at least bring it, just in case.  Just yesterday, Ben looked at his library book and asked when it's due.  I told him it's due Friday, and he said, "Well, I'll bring it back Thursday just to be safe."  It still amazes me when I see him put away his books or toys during rest time, turn off his light, and crawl in bed for a nap because he recognizes he's tired.  This kind of thinking is not bred of simply obeying my authority.  It comes from experiencing cold, Colorado  mornings.  It comes from paying fines for late books.  It comes from feeling tired and cranky.  It comes from making a mistake, feeling the consequence, and having the opportunity to choose differently next time.  

I want to work all things in my children's life together for their good.  I want to give them free will within the boundaries I set for them.  And when they choose to go outside those boundaries, I want them to experience consequences in the safety of my love for them so that, hopefully, they won't have to experience the harsh consequences of a larger world that has little concern for their well-being.  And hopefully, when they venture out in this wide, wide world, we'll have a relationship that goes far beyond me telling them what to do.  

I want them to learn so much more than obedience...


We found out we'll be bringing a puppy home in a few short weeks.  Merlot is her name--for now, at least.  I imagine there are many lessons in store for me; I've learned so much already.  On the one hand, I can't believe we're bringing another creature into the house that needs training and discipline and guidance in addition to all the physical demands of meals, potty breaks, play time, etc.  On the other hand, I am smitten with the notion of relationship, of bringing more love and joy into our home, even as we invite their bedfellows, frustration and discouragement.  It is a beautiful mess, family, and a beautiful blessing.
Blog Widget by LinkWithin