Monday, April 28, 2014

The Work Matters

There have been moments lately.

Small moments.

Imperceptible, perhaps, to those not engaged in the daily toil of child-rearing.

But monumental to us, who have been daily loving and encouraging and reminding and praying and disciplining and correcting and forgiving and surrendering.

After both kids argued with me at length, Benjamin approached me on his initiative, teary in his sincerity. "I heard the way Abby was talking to you and didn't want you to think your ideas aren't good," he said. "I'm sorry for talking that way to you."

When I asked Abby to get going on her shower after finishing dinner, she said, "Okay, Mommy," rather than assailing me with the usual protests and resistance and tears.

Benjamin, who for months has had his sights set on an electric scooter, saved and worked and saved and worked some more for the money. He earned nearly one hundred dollars and then made a deal with Abby over the weekend to have her contribute the last twenty dollars toward the purchase in exchange for unlimited access to the scooter. She agreed, we bought the scooter, and he has been completely faithful to his end of the bargain, allowing her to ride the scooter and working out equitable turn-taking without any intervention from us.

At the dinner table, Abigail offered the last bell pepper to the rest of us before taking it for herself. She did this because she's seen her brother extend this same courtesy consistently for the last couple weeks now.

And there've been many more.

It's funny because a month ago, we were wondering where we'd gone off course. It seemed we'd spent months and months encouraging certain principles and behaviors without any indication the kids were learning them at all. Then suddenly, in the last couple weeks, we've observed countless displays of maturity and self-discipline and thoughtfulness.

There are seasons of parenting when it feels as though you are doing hard, steady work--day after day after day--into a void of feedback. And though I should know this by heart by now, I still forget that these seemingly fruitless seasons are always followed by seasons when you get to admire how truly amazing these little humans are.

Note to self: parenting is like gardening.

You plant seeds into soil you've diligently prepared and then water and weed and nurture and nourish and protect in exchange for nothing more than sweat and dirty hands and a lot of time on your knees.

This effort is a wild act of faith, because you must keep doing in the absence of any sign that the labor matters. You have a vision of what you hope the seeds will become, but when the pile of dirt persists in remaining a pile of dirt, you can't help but wonder if all the work was for nought.

Until one day, a tiny green shoot breaks through the soil, defying gravity in a courageous, audacious display of determination and resilience.

And you've never seen anything so beautiful as that small but wondrous sign of life, rooted down deep and promising goodness to come. Because you know that once that life has surfaced, the little shoot will continue to grow and flourish and multiply into something lovely, something healthy, something that nourishes, something that gives back.

The work doesn't stop, of course, but the worry eases and the toil becomes pleasure, because now every effort rewards you with something you can see and feel and enjoy.

The work matters.

Even when the soil shows no signs of life, the work matters.

Something is happening deep down in the dark, messy, hidden places of our kids. Our love, our discipline, our encouragement, our forgiveness is taking root and growing those very same fruits within them. It takes time before we see the evidence--weeks, months, years, perhaps even a lifetime--but their hearts are fertile ground, and invisible miracles are taking place below the surface even now.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Great Parenting Paradox: My Messy Beautiful

This morning, Benjamin, my eight-year-old, entered our room at 6:30 and laid on the foot of our bed, chatting with us about whatever. He was content and smiley and gentle and sweet. His guard was down, his spirits were up. It was the very best of who he is, the real Benjamin, the Benjamin who at times amazes us with his maturity and selflessness.

My husband got up to get ready for work, and Benjamin crawled up closer to me so we were facing each other. I began squeezing his arm playfully, and he giggled, tickled. He flexed his bicep, and I oohed and ahhed and then flexed mine back. He looked at me and grinned, his smile all big kid teeth. And I thought, I love when we're in this place with each other. How do so many mornings get off track?

Twenty minutes later, our happy train derailed.

He tested a limit, we enforced a consequence. He reacted with drama and sarcasm and blame, I addressed the disrespect. He honored me with his lips though his heart was far from me, I wanted desperately to get us back to the peace we enjoyed on the bed earlier. There were tears, words, anger, hurt. 

And then, as quickly as the cloud appeared with its thunder and lightning, the skies cleared again. He finished his breakfast, grabbed his backpack, hugged us before walking out the door, and proceeded to chat with me on the way to school as though nothing had happened.

Sometimes I get the impression the kids forget these tantrums as quickly as they start them. I, however, am left reeling, playing the conflict over in my mind to see where I could have diffused the situation rather than escalated it, wondering if something I did incited such a reaction. 

My tendency is to extrapolate these moments into generalizations about how we're doing as parents, how he's doing as a kid. Is he feeling loved enough? Is he getting enough affirmation? Why did he feel the need to make such a lame choice on an otherwise delightful morning? And then, why didn't he just acknowledge the lame choice and move on so we could return to our delightful morning?

But perhaps these are just the normal, everyday growing pains of childishness. Maybe his attempts to usurp control are actually a necessary exercise of childhood and not a reflection of something we're doing wrong. Perhaps our error is in expecting otherwise. I mean, the kid is winning citizenship awards at school, so he must be taking something worthwhile away from our home, right?

Some folks say that kids will act out most at home where they know it's safe and secure to do so. In this way, they learn what is acceptable and what's not from those who will love them no matter what. Is it possible our son is actually quite secure? That we should receive his misbehavior as a sign of trust? Some studies even show that kids who push and test their limits, bumping up against firm boundaries, have the best social outcomes, grow up most self-assured.

I generally regard these statements with some suspicion, the perfectionist in me reluctant to believe that imperfection--his or mine--could be purposeful in his growing up. It feels like the pipe dream of a weary parent.

And yet, I think there may be some truth there. If the law came in that sin might abound (so let that be a lesson to us: make fewer rules), and if God consigned all men to disobedience so that he might have mercy on all, then disobedience is not a sign of our failure as parents. If it were, God would, by definition, be the worst parent ever. And perfection must not be our goal, since God made disobedience a condition of humanity. 

Despite everything we've been told, despite every voice in my head that says if I were doing my job as a mother right my kids would be all sweetness and light every day, raising ever-compliant children is not the point. It's not even possible.

The opportunity for us as parents to demonstrate mercy and offer forgiveness and display love unconditional, is. Over and over and over. Day after day after day. Until, by some mystery of grace, mercy and forgiveness and love becomes the very fiber of their being.

It's a messy, infuriating notion: we get emotionally crucified, they learn love. And isn't love what we're really asking of our kids in all our rules? Benjamin: please think of the people around you before you act on your own desires. 

When we distill misbehavior to its essence, it is simply selfishness at work rather than love.

The great parenting paradox is that our children learn love by experiencing forgiveness for their un-love. Our children learn obedience by receiving mercy in their disobedience. There is no detour around the frustrating to the delightful.

Perhaps Benjamin loves well--in selfless displays that at times leave me speechless--because he's disobeyed and been forgiven much.

I screw up, too. Some days, many days, it is really my unreasonable expectation or grouchiness or need to get out the door right. now. that incites the meltdowns of behavior. My own selfishness spirals us into the tears and anger. Then it's my turn to receive forgiveness, to remember how absolutely hard it is to be human, and in this state, I am drawn to greater compassion for my littles, to greater love for their precious hearts that are doing the best they can in a world that demands so much.

We find our common ground in our failure--and our common joy in loving each other anyway.

Well, it would sure be easier if the process were different: I say something reasonable every time, he obeys with a smile every time, and we all live happily ever after. 

But that picture of sanitized family is dimensionless and textureless, devoid of the richness and vibrancy and security found in conflict and resolution. The illusion of perfection is better left in the realm of the merely acquainted.

Family is made in the gut-wrenching mornings like today. We chat, we giggle, we feel each other's biceps. We rail and argue and bump up against each other's feelings. And then we pack lunches and hug and ask forgiveness and go about our day, stronger for having witnessed, yet again, that nothing will break our love for each other.

May it be so. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Throw the Ball

Benjamin's baseball team competed tonight, but I noticed a curious phenomenon.

For the first few innings, the boys would field the ball and then hold it, arm back as though ready to throw, but frozen in inaction until the runner was safely on base.

I can only surmise that this paralysis came in response to the game they barely lost Saturday.

After a close game in which they headed into the bottom of the last inning ahead, they made error after error in the field: throwing over the first baseman's head or into the ground or anywhere but the glove. The mis-throws gave the other team run after run and ultimately the win that could have been ours.

The loss was painful to watch and disappointing for them to experience.

And so, I think, they decided to play it safe tonight. Rather than throw the ball away and give up runs, they'd field the ball and hold. This way they wouldn't make errors. This way they wouldn't give up runs.

But in so doing, they gave up outs.

After the third inning of incomplete plays, after watching player after player field the ball and freeze, after watching the other team score four runs one inning and five the next because the only outs came from strikeouts (not common in coach pitch), the boys' coach finally yelled (uncharacteristic in itself), "The next person who doesn't throw the ball will sit out the inning!"

Even our mild-mannered, ever-encouraging coach couldn't take it. Play the game or sit it out!

So the next time they took the field, the boys began to attempt the plays. Not perfectly. Not to the point of turning the game around. But they made the throws to first. They got the out at second. They tried to throw the runner out at home.

They were playing the game. And in one inning, their plays got the outs they needed to hold the score and get their at-bat.

At one point, Benjamin fielded a ball from short stop and threw to first. He didn't beat the runner, but he made the play. He did exactly what he was supposed to do, and the attempt made me prouder than anything else he had done on the field.

Another boy in the outfield attempted to throw a runner out at second. He overthrew the ball, giving up a base in the process, but I found myself cheering wildly in the stands.

Sitting in the bleachers under the lights of the little league field, I realized I'd so much rather they throw the ball and miss than be afraid to make the throw.

At least when they throw the ball, they have a chance at greatness. At least when they throw, they can grow in skill and experience. At least when they throw, they can learn something for next time: stay calm, get your arm back, point your other arm toward the target, step into the throw.

In the first three innings, it felt like they would never progress because they wouldn't try, wouldn't practice their new skills, wouldn't put the coaching and rehearsing to use. Playing that way, they'd be the same team in three years that they are now.

They have to attempt the plays in order to make the plays. And they have to attempt the plays to become better players.

I felt myself convicted because I recognize that sometimes, we lead our lives like those boys played the game. We hold back because we're afraid to fail. We're on the field, and we can say we stopped the ball, but we refuse to take the risk and throw.

Unfortunately, in our paralysis we beat ourselves.

When our focus is to not make mistakes, to avoid disappointing those around us, then we ensure we will never contribute to victory. The goal must be the process, regardless of outcome.

Field the ball, make the throw, get the out.

Sometimes we'll fail. But we will have learned something, and we will have gone down trying.

But sometimes we'll nail it. And the joy of that one moment is too sweet to be missed for fear of shame.

And the cumulative joy of making play after play and having moment after moment? Well, that's pure glory.

Throw the ball or sit it out.

Anything less isn't baseball. Or true living.

photo credit: adwriter via photopin cc

Sunday, April 6, 2014

60 Minutes Closer to Bedtime

Some days of mothering are uninspired. And uninspiring.

Everyone's tired. Everyone's cranky.

And I try to be the bigger person but mostly I'm just the bigger boss who gets to draw the majority of the lines regarding activities or sounds that are too annoying or too loud or too much to deal with on this tired and cranky day.

We were all up late playing with the neighbors last night, so it's no wonder. The marathon of yesterday's fun was delight from start to finish, but we paid for the hours-too-late bedtime with grumbling and malaise and general snappishness today.

I don't think one child made a statement today without the other declaring said statement could not possibly be so or insisting the exact opposite was so or asserting the speaker's intentions were to ruin the other's everything.

I don't know where they get the energy to fight when they can't even lift their eyelids all the way up.


Abby was mouth-open asleep within minutes of hitting the pillow tonight.

Benjamin unfortunately took longer, his earlobe still pained after taking a hit in yesterday's neighborhood Nerf gun war.

I decided ibuprofen was justified since he's complained about his earlobe three other times since he went to bed last night. And since I had no resistance left in me.

I assume I needn't worry about a cartilage injury.

So, dear ones, I humbly accept the super-fun mommy award for yesterday's frivolity and spontaneity and carefree approach to bedtime and dessert and soda consumption and bathing.

And I likewise accept the mediocre mommy award for expecting the tired and cranky children I produced through yesterday's surrender of responsible parenting to treat me and each other civilly, and to also clean their rooms, and not drive me mad in the process.

There are some days when every hour is simply sixty minutes closer to bedtime.

Sleep well, my darlings. Tomorrow is a new day.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

When You Say Yes

Last night, Josh and I filled more of our empty walls. We gathered the screws and nails, the screwdriver and hammer, the level and tape measure, and proceeded to hang our modest collection of eye candy.

Up a little.

Over just a quarter of an inch.

No, back a smidge.

Yes, right there.

Do you think it's too high?

Do you think it's high enough?

Is is too much?

Is it enough?

Are we centered?

It's perfect.


When you say yes, you don't think about the minutiae-filled moments of a lifetime.

You don't think about the laundry you'll fold, the toilets you'll clean, the floors you'll sweep, the dishes you'll rinse, load, unload, repeat.

You don't think about the utilities you'll set up, the bills you'll pay, the contractors you'll manage, the appointments you'll make.

You don't think about the decisions you'll mull regarding retirement accounts and home mortgages and insurance policies and wills.

You don't think about the little bathroom floor where you'll spend the wee hours of the morning with your sick child or the nights you'll climb into bed next to a coughing, snuffling, snoring and miserable spouse.

The pretty house, the weekends away, the snuggly babies, the games of catch in the backyard--those you can imagine when he's down on one knee. Those are the elements of romance you can conceive.

But the other stuff--the logistics and the finances and the repairs and the kids who confound and the jobs that disappoint/thrill/exhaust and the nights you spend moving pictures up an inch, over a quarter--those are the moments of which a marriage is made. Life shared in all its lovely and crazy-making and snooze-worthy glory.

When you can smile and tease and chuckle your way through an evening when the most exciting thing on the agenda is organizing the garage or marveling at how your daughter can manage to leave a trail of belongings that reaches every room in the house...

When you can collapse into bed together at the end of the day, knowing there's nothing left to do but hold each other and pray over your kids, wondering if you've disciplined them too much or not enough, if your words and actions even mattered...

When you can ride the waves of success, job loss, relocation, and limbo, and watch infinite possibility stretch out before you, knowing everything could change again in a moment, or not...

And want nothing more than to live each triumph and crisis with the man who kneeled before you once upon a time--

Then you have a real romance.

I looked across the room at my husband last night, balancing on the big red armchair with hammer in hand for the love of me, and I realized how naive I was all those years ago.

And how wise.

When I said yes, I could never have imagined this moment: hanging pictures at ten-thirty at night in Houston, Texas, with two precious kiddos asleep behind closed doors and a pup curled into a ball on the floor between.

But when I said yes, deep down I knew I could enjoy anything, anywhere if I were with him.

And I was right.

Up a little.

Over a quarter of an inch.

Yes, right there.

Saying yes means you'll spend your days crafting a life together: big decisions, small adjustments, course corrections, questions and doubts, and the labor of making the vision come true.

So that when you step back, you'll see something beautiful, something that enhances this temporal home on earth not just for us, but also for those who pass through.

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