Thursday, October 27, 2011

Internal Mommy Gear

Reese had her first time out yesterday for hitting another kid at Bible study. She and one other little girl are always fighting over the same toys, and I guess Reese had enough because she waited until G turned her back, and then grabbed a different toy and clubbed her over the head with it. Some moms might be inclined to think it was an accident - “Oh, she was just trying to hand it to her.” But I’m not that na├»ve. She clocked this kid. On purpose.
Immediately after it happened, I set her on my lap and said, “Reese Margaret, no no. We do not hit.” I held her there for about a minute, and she cried the whole time. After I let her down, I took her over to G and told her to say “sorry” not thinking she would actually say it. “Sigh-eee,” she said to her, which instantly melted my heart. As I rejoined the adult conversation, all I could think about was how terrified I am to have to add discipline to my growing list of parenting responsibilities.

From the day Reese was born, I’ve always said that I dread the disciplinary part of parenting. I believe in responsibility, accountability, and consequences, and it’s important to me that I find an effective way of passing those values to my kids. So it’s certainly not that I don’t want to discipline Reese. It’s that I feel completely clueless about how to find the strategy that works for me and for her. It doesn’t help me to ask other parents what they do because kids are so different and what works for them might not work for us. And it doesn’t help me to read books because the “experts” always try to make black and white instruction manuals out of topics with too many gray areas. It seems that whenever I seek advice, I always come out more confused (if that’s even possible).

Well, if my friends can’t help me, and the experts can’t help me, what’s left? I guess all that’s left is what I have in my heart, but now I'm wondering if maybe those are the only tools I need: 

·                   * Trust in my maternal instincts
·                   * Faith in my values
·                   * Unconditional love and respect
·                   * Forgiveness
·                   *Patience with my own mistakes in the process

Before today, I never sat down and thought about a discipline plan. I never said, “when Reese hits another kid, I’m going to do X, Y, and Z.” It just happened, and I responded from my heart. About an hour later, I carried her out of the car, and she said again, “sigh-eee.” Then we parked in the drive way and I carried her to her crib for her nap. “Sigh-eee, Mommy.” Okay, so maybe she doesn’t understand what sorry means… or maybe she really does feel bad. Maybe I'm showing a little bit of the "mommy bias" here, but I choose to believe the latter. “It’s ok, baby. Mommy loves you very much,” I said as I put her in bed. I left the room and silently wished for every future incident to go so smoothly.  

I know there’s plenty more discipline coming in the years ahead and many situations that don’t have a clear answer or ones where I end up choosing the wrong answer (and that’s where the patience with myself comes in), but yesterday I realized that maybe discipline isn’t a process to fear or a topic to research or an invitation for advice. Maybe it’s just like our ability to decode cries and grunts and mumbles, or the immeasurable love and patience we have for our children or our willingness to sacrifice so much of ourselves for them. Maybe it’s just another part of parenting that we all fear until we realize it's included in our internal mommy gear.

Monday, October 24, 2011

If You Jump, I Will Catch You

I hear a lot of moms talk about how badly they wish they could stay home, but the fear of losing their income prevents them from taking the leap. For all the moms who want to stay home as badly as I did, all I can say is I know that fear. I know that doubt. But I did it anyway, and I have no regrets. This is my story….

When I was pregnant with Reese, Matt and I wavered quite often in our feelings about me staying home full-time. Although it was the lifestyle we both always wanted, neither of us was convinced that we could meet our needs with half of our income. With the help of an online tutorial, I created an elaborate spreadsheet detailing our expenses and the upcoming change in our income. I quickly developed an unhealthy addiction to tinkering with the numbers… maybe if we downgrade our cell phone plans, or if we cancel our cable TV, or if we give up this or stop buying that, maybe then the number at the bottom of the screen will rise above zero. It was not uncommon for Matt to find me staring at the screen in tears saying, “It’s just not going to work. I can’t stay home.”

Halfway through my pregnancy, I gave up on my dream and started researching daycare options. I started by calling a few women in town who provided daycare in their homes. No one had any openings. I was running out of references, so I chose a different route and went to a local day care center. As I looked through the window to the main play area, I could already feel the heat rising in my body, the tears pooling under my eyes. I thought about the life I pictured for my children, and this was not it. The woman behind the counter said, “Hi, can I help you?” At least, I think that’s what she said. I was already out the door.

After that, Matt suggested that we take a break from the daycare search until after the baby was born. We decided to spend less time worrying about doing it our way and more time praying for guidance toward the right decision. It took over six months, but we finally decided to leave it to God. Once we did that, we realized that He was already trying to give us the answer. The uneasy feeling I had in the daycare center and my inability to find any openings with an in-home provider were two of the obvious signs. Then there were other things like the unexpected partial tuition waivers we received from Matt’s work or the last-minute financial aid award notices that helped pay for his graduate classes or our decisions to skip out on a bigger house and newer cars just because we “had a feeling” that it wasn’t the right time. We had too many instances where money just happened to line up just as we needed it, as if God was saying, “If you jump, I will catch you.”

A few months later, I watched my brand new baby sleeping peacefully in my arms, tears coming and going with each new surge of emotion: pride, joy, pain, exhaustion, love, fear. After watching the look in my eyes all day, Matt finally asked the question we both already knew the answer to, “You’re not going back to work, are you?” My answer was simple: “I can’t.”

We still had three months to make a definite decision, and we talked about it almost every day. After actually having the baby, we were more determined than ever to make it work. With just a couple weeks left of my maternity leave, I sat down at the computer and wrote my resignation letter. As I walked it into the office, the negative number on my spreadsheet flashed in my mind like a strobe light. I handed the letter in anyway. I quit my job anyway. I walked out the door and went home to my baby.

Since that day, it hasn’t been easy. We’ve turned down invitations to go on trips and passed up homes we wanted to buy. We drive cars barely large enough for a car seat, and we hardly ever eat at restaurants. But we didn’t cancel our cable TV; we didn’t give up our cell phones. We still do fun things, and we have a great life. We pay all of our bills and we still have a lot of money in savings. And that negative number on the spreadsheet? Well, I don’t know where it went, but when I go on line to check our bank statement, even on the months where I feel we went a little overboard, there’s always enough. There’s always more than enough.

I've been home for almost 17 months, and I never regret my decision. I never miss my paycheck, and somehow it all works out. Living with less really is easier than it seems. Of course, I can’t say that it will work that way for everyone, but it worked that way for us. All we did was turn it over to God. We prayed and we listened. We took a leap of faith and we followed our hearts. We jumped and He caught us.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Thinking for Two

I was in the shower this morning when I grabbed the shampoo, popped the top open, and turned the bottle upside down. As a stream of orange gel flowed into my palm, I had a sudden thought, "Wait. Did I already wash my hair?" I seriously couldn't remember. I decided better twice than not at all and I proceeded to lather up anyway. "How does that even happen?" I wondered as I shook my head at my own forgetfulness. I answered my own question in my mind, "Don't even act surprised. You do stuff like this all the time." 

I can only imagine where she gets it.
Ok, I'll be honest. I do stuff like that all the time. I drive away with my coffee cup on top of my car. I spend 10 minutes looking for my sunglasses and then realize they're on top of my head. I open the microwave and find the lunch that I heated up 3 hours ago and forgot to eat. I'm prone to those kinds of mental mishaps partly because I'm always rushing around anyway and because of the ever-so-common Frazzled Mom Syndrome, but I think there's also another reason. It's because I'm constantly thinking for two.

Thinking for two. It's like eating for two except that (1) thinking for two lasts much longer than nine months and (2) eating for two is fun and thinking for two is exhausting. When I got pregnant, I was prepared to eat for two. I was even kind of excited about it. "This one's for the baby," I would say as I grabbed a second cookie (and often a third). It's fun because it only lasts nine months and then you go back to eating for yourself and your baby eats for herself. Yeah, not so much with the thinking. It's by far the most exhausting part of motherhood (including midnight feedings), and I can only imagine how it's possible that there are so many mothers out there thinking for three or five or seven.

With two bodies to bathe and dress, two sets of teeth to brush, two mouths to feed, and two lives to manage, it seems like I never get a break from thinking about, planning for, and doing everything... twice. I keep track of her meals, naps, baths, and every other daily routine. When I say I need a break from Reese, that's the part I need to get away from most. Unfortunately, it's the part I rarely escape. "Hey, can you feed her some lunch?" I ask Matt sometimes on the weekends. "Sure," he answers, "What's she having?"

Okay, so I sometimes get a break from sitting there while she eats, but I almost never get a break from thinking about her lunch, knowing what time she should eat it, and deciding what she'll have. I also never get a break from remembering to keep the house clear of all possible hazards or from worrying about her when I'm not there or from hoping that I'm making the right choices for her. When I really think about how mentally demanding it is to be a mom, it's no wonder why I sometimes end up washing my hair twice.

Thinking for two is the same as being pregnant and reaching for an extra snack or ordering a larger portion. You give yourself a break because you're eating for two, right? So the next time you're looking for the car keys that are in your pocket or you accidentally leave the refrigerator door open or you're standing in the shower trying to remember if you already washed your hair, just remember that you're not dumb or crazy. Just laugh it off and give yourself a break and say, "Hey, what do you expect? I'm thinking for two."

Thursday, October 13, 2011

How Great Thou Art

Lately I’ve been bothered by a subtle, nagging anxiety. It isn’t the kind of anxiety that causes me to hang Matt’s dress shirts by style and color or the kind that urges me to perfectly arrange all of Reese’s toys at the end of every day. It doesn’t affect my ability to enjoy my days with Reese or trust my decisions or keep my home in order. Instead, it’s the kind of anxiety that always has me wondering what I’ve forgotten, the kind that leaves me feeling a bit uneasy for no apparent reason. Something seems to be missing. I’m not completely calm; not entirely comfortable; not totally at peace. 

I floated along this way for weeks, maybe even a few months. It grew so gradually that it became difficult to pinpoint a beginning. I started to wonder if I needed counseling or medication or maybe I was just slowly going crazy. It feels like I’m walking on a platform high above the ground, and although I know it’s wide enough and sturdy enough, I still can’t shake the fear that I might go tumbling over the edge at any moment. As I watched my platform slowly rising higher, I wondered how long it would take before others noticed how unbalanced I felt. The whole time, I had no idea that my saving grace was so easily within reach.

Six weeks ago, I started teaching 5th grade CCD on Wednesday evenings. It’s a great reason to get out of the house every week and I’m gaining teaching experience and deepening my faith. Talk about a win-win situation! I switch off leading the lesson every other week with Kristin, my co-teacher and close friend. Last night I parked my car and trudged to the classroom, glad it wasn’t my week to lead and hoping the hour would pass quickly. We started class with our usual prayer circle and then Kristin turned off the lights and played the video of Carrie Underwood singing "How Great ThouArt" at the ACM "Girls Night Out" concert. 

I knew she was planning to show that video, and although I had seen it before, I was completely unprepared for my reaction. Just a few seconds into it, my eyes brimmed with tears. I casually wiped them away, pretending to scratch an itch, but new ones came in their place. I reached for a Kleenex to stifle a fourth sniffle, and I wondered if the kids could see my red face across the dark room. Suddenly, as I listened to the refrain - “Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee…” - I felt so deeply connected to the present moment. My mind and my heart soared with comfort and peace; the unnecessary worries and irrational fears melted away; and a complete calm settled over the storm. And there it was, plain as day - the “something” I was missing. I had become disconnected from the Holy Spirit, and in that moment, I felt God calling me back.     

When the lights came on again, no one mentioned the emotion on my face. Maybe they didn’t notice, but I couldn’t imagine how that was possible. I pulled myself together as Kristin started her lesson. Afterwards, I walked to my car in a completely different mood from when I arrived just one hour earlier, and I realized that I did get my wish – the hour passed very quickly. 

As I drove home, I thought about how infrequently I have those moments where I feel fully connected to God. It’s a connection that reaches deeper than daily prayer and weekly Mass, which are uplifting and inspiring, but often become such a matter of routine that I don’t fully experience them as I should. These moments, rather, come in the form of triumphant stories, magnificent sunsets, uncanny coincidences, answered prayers, and beautifully sung hymns of worship and praise. They often catch me off guard during times when I don’t even know I’m looking for God, and that’s probably because He only lets me stray so far and then He comes looking for me.

If you saw me going about my day today, I would have seemed just like I always do on the outside. On the inside, however, I have a renewed sense of peace. Although all of my little fears and anxieties have not been entirely wiped away, I feel better equipped to handle them with the grace of God surrounding me. It’s a grace that can be found in the simplest of moments, out of which flow the most powerful reminders of God’s unending, unconditional, all-consuming love. And all we have to do to fully experience them is quiet our minds, open our hearts, and let our souls sing.... "my Savior God, to Thee. How great Thou art. How great Thou art!"

Sunday, October 9, 2011

No Brats Allowed

“Effective [this date], we will only be seating children over the age of six. We appreciate your cooperation. Thank you, The Management.” 

I paraphrased the above statement, but a sign sending the same message was recently placed on the front door of a restaurant in Pennsylvania. This restaurant is one of many businesses putting a ban on young children. The brat ban has become a parenting hot topic as parents in increasing numbers are being asked to remove themselves and their unruly children from public venues.

As talk shows and news reports continue to highlight this debate, I see little mention of the real problem. It is unfortunate that the focus has shifted to the children who are simply victims of circumstance. In my attempt to look at this debate for what it really is, I created a few alternative signs for the windows of businesses that would prefer not to serve young children: 

1. “Effective [this date], we will only be seating children with attentive parents.”

I’ll never forget a segment I saw a few months ago on the Today Show about bullying. Matt Lauer interviewed an expert on the topic who, as usual, pointed every bit of fault toward school officials and teachers for not being more attentive to the problem. Lauer asked how much of the responsibility should fall on parents to educate their own children on the issue. Finally, the question that never gets asked! I eagerly awaited her reply, which was quite matter-of-fact: “Parents these days are too busy and simply don’t have the time. Therefore, they need to be able to rely on schools to equip their kids with necessary life skills.” You can imagine my shock. That’s the moment I realized that we live in a society that places responsibilities to work and self above responsibilities to home and family. No doubt such a mentality has given rise to the spread of inattentive parenting habits. If they’re not teaching their kids to be responsible and respectful citizens, they’re certainly not going to stop them from banging their plate on the table at Chili’s. 

2. “Please enlist common sense before entering with children.”

If Reese was suddenly banned from places like McDonald’s or TGI Friday’s, of course I would be offended. But if she was banned from restaurants with white linen tablecloths and businesspeople in formal attire, I think I’d get over it. Some places are just not appropriate for children and most sensible parents understand. Even when the kind of place isn’t the issue though, parents still need to consider the child’s general temperament and current mood before deciding if his presence is appropriate to the venue. Reese is in a screaming phase right now, which means that I rarely take her to restaurants or other quiet places. If the sound is annoying to my ears at times, I can only imagine the opinion of the elderly couple at the next table.

Of course, I am aware that parents can’t predict their children’s behavior with 100% accuracy, but most of us know our kids well enough to determine the type of public setting they can handle on a given day.  (If you aren’t able to do this, please refer to sign #1). It isn’t fair to expect everyone to adopt a “kids will be kids” mentality in the presence of children, especially when someone’s toddler starts launching spaghetti across the room. If parents know their kids can’t handle a certain setting, there are lots of alternatives: hire a sitter, stay home, or go to a place that is always kid-friendly, like McDonald’s.

3. “Due to the inability of our staff and customers to recognize and accept the normal cognitive skills and behavioral patterns of young children, we are only able to serve those over the age of six. We apologize for our ignorance.”

This is where I fall on the opposite side of the debate. Even the greatest, most attentive parents have children who occasionally make a scene in public. I’m amazed that anyone would expect a toddler (or sometimes even an infant!) to have good manners and appropriate social skills. Most people who get upset with children in public do so because they believe the children should “know better.” Most of the time, though, children don’t know better and it’s simply because they’re at a place in their development where they can’t know better. Fortunately, these people are easy to spot, as their lack of knowledge about normal child development is obvious (like the hostess who hands your eight-month-old a kids’ menu and crayons, or the lady at the next table who asks if your tantrum-throwing one-year-old would like a Tootsie-Pop).  

Just as parents with unruly children can stay home to avoid bothering others, people without any patience for the occasional screaming toddler can stay home to avoid being bothered. Parents aren’t the only ones who should have to enlist common sense before entering a public place.

Seriously, though, all jokes and rude signs aside, it saddens me that such a debate is even in question during a time when we have so many other major issues to attend to – like our failing economy and the fact that children in this country are literally getting bullied to death. What really needs to happen is a revival of the long-dead cultural expectations of common sense, common courtesies, and unconditional respect for others. If we do those things, I guarantee we can consider this problem (and many others) to be as good as solved.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Mother's Journey

This is me: 6 months old
I have a calendar on my nightstand that displays an inspirational quote about motherhood for each day of the year. It was a gift from my sister-in-law on my first Mother's Day and I still enjoy turning the page every day to read the new quote. I agree with many of them and disagree with many others, but all of them are equally thought-provoking. One of the recent ones said, "A mother is not a person to lean on, but rather a person to make leaning unnecessary." While I adamantly disagree with the former phrase of that sentence, the latter prompted me to write one of my favorite pieces of poetry to date. 

High School Senior Pictures 2001
On a brief side note... it may (or may not) surprise you to hear that I dabble in poetry a bit. It started as a cathartic release of teenage angst, a phase during which I realized that a well-written poem can be the most beautiful way to relay a story, evoke emotion, and deepen a message. I rarely share my poetry (the one I wrote on Mother's Day is the only other poem that appears here thus far). It's mostly because of an intense fear of rejection, but I guess six months of opening myself and my life on the internet is hardening me a bit and boosting my courage. 

My Wedding Day 2008
Ok, back to today's message... after the above quote came up on my calendar, I realized that I had not yet fully considered the true level of the sacrifice that mothers make for their children - a sacrifice that goes beyond labor pains and midnight feedings. It's a lifelong sacrifice of ourselves for children who are actually not ours at all - children who will someday tie their own shoes, make their own meals, and live their own lives; children who will lean on us less and less as they grow in confidence and independence. It begins with the literal cutting of the cord and as our children venture further into the world - from the first day of kindergarten to the last day of college and from high school dances to wedding day - each milestone cuts the metaphorical cord away just that much more. Without speaking from direct experience, I can only imagine the mixture of pride and joy and sadness and loss that dwells in our hearts on those momentous days. 

I wrote this poem in an attempt to put a beautifully bittersweet journey into words and to remind all of the moms with grown up children that even though you may succeed at making certain kinds of "leaning" unnecessary, you will always have an irreplaceable role in the lives of your children. Once a mommy, always a mommy!  

A Mother’s Journey
My mother’s journey starts today
In this tiny room where we both lay.
My mom is just so very proud
As she picks out the perfect gown
To take me home on my first day,
And show the world the life she made.
She lifts her chin and smiles wide
As we head toward the world outside.
She'll pause and bow her head to pray
For God to guide us on our way.

Those 18 years will fly so fast.
Her little girl will grow at last,
And she will be so very proud
As she fits my graduation gown
And matching cap for my big day.
She’ll be sad but she won’t say.
Instead she’ll give a happy smile
As I make my journey down the aisle.
And she will bow her head to pray
As life leads her baby girl away.

Someday a man will come around
Who sweeps my feet up off the ground.
And she will be so very proud
As she fits me for the perfect gown
And matching shoes for my big day.
She’ll be sad but she won’t say.
Instead she’ll give a happy smile
As I make my journey down the aisle.
And she will bow her head to pray
As she gives her baby girl away.

And someday when we both are gone,
And our daughters still are living on,
I know she will be so proud
As she fits me for my final gown
And matching wings for my big day.
Her baby girl is Home to stay.
On the other side she’ll stand and wait
As I make my journey through the gate.
As we bow down at Jesus’ feet,
My mother’s journey is complete.