Friday, May 31, 2013

On Being Loved

Meet the fifth member of our family:

This is Reese's security toy. I got him from my graduate assistant at ISU while I was still pregnant (which means I have a floppy-eared representation of my former career dragging lifelessly at my daughter's side everywhere we go. It's great). His name is Mono (like the illness) because there was a time when she thought every small furry animal was a cat. She would point to him and say “meow” but it sounded more like a high pitched “mono” and the word stuck. We always get a good laugh when she turns to random strangers and says, "I have Mono."

Reese - 9 months

When we take Mono out in public people often smile and say, “That is one loved bunny.” And loved he is. She doesn’t go to sleep without him. There have been many just-before-bedtime searches for Mono when Reese forgets where he's been “taking his nap.” She doesn’t leave the house without him either. There have also been a few three-point turnarounds on the road to town when she discovers that we’ve left him at home. Mono often joins us at the dinner table; he appears in family pictures; and Reese always adds a “thank you for Mono” to her nightly prayers. Yes, he is one loved bunny.

Sometimes people ask me if I've ever considered attempting to replace him with a new one. Of course not. I know Reese would never accept a different bunny - even a seemingly nicer, newer version of the one she has. She doesn't care that he's had everything imaginable scrubbed out of his fur. She doesn't care that he's now more gray than white or that the material on his nose is rubbed off. She doesn't care that his fur isn't soft anymore or that he smells kinda funny even after a trip through the washer. To Reese, Mono has always been the perfect companion. The flaws just don't matter. She loves him and she can't see what other people see.

When I look at Reese's attachment to Mono, I realize how silly our struggles with self-image really are. We judge ourselves by our appearance, but the men who married us and watched us carry their children don’t focus on our stretch marks or cellulite. They don’t see the flaws that we see. Instead, they see a perfect companion.

We judge ourselves by our mistakes, but the people who know and love us to our deepest core don’t focus on our misspoken words or neurotic tendencies. They don’t see the flaws that we see. Instead, they see a dear friend.

We judge ourselves by our shortcomings, but the God who loves and forgives unconditionally doesn’t focus on our lapses in judgment or deepest regrets. He doesn’t see the flaws that we see. Instead, He sees a loved and worthy creation.

If you are fortunate enough to have people in your life who know, love, and accept you at your best and worst, then you, too, are "one loved bunny" and nothing else matters. None of those people would prefer another you – even one that appears more perfect on the surface.

That pure unconditional love reminds me of this passage from the 1922 children's classic The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. She writes:

"When a child loves you for a long, long time - not just to play with but really loves you, then you become Real... It doesn't happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time... Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out, and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But those things don't matter at all because once you are Real, you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

Reese - 3 years

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Are You an Over-Protective Mom?

I'm starting to think I might be an over-protective mom. I became aware of it for the first time last month when we went to a birthday party at a kids’ gym where the kids and parents were separated by a waist-high wall. During the party, I was very aware of my discomfort with this setup, and I was bothered by how much I was bothered. Since then I've been highly aware of my desire to continue the coddling and hand-holding hallmarks of the infant and toddler years. 

I don’t like admitting this. It’s a little painful and slightly embarrassing. I’m a rescuer – and not in a heroic way but in a “Back off, Mom!” kind of way. I swoop in to head off moments of frustration or disappointment. I do things for my kids that they should be able to do themselves, and my worry of “what might happen” clouds my ability to enjoy watching them do anything that carries even the smallest risk.

This is exactly the situation I always wanted to avoid - I always feared that my controlling ways and worry-wart tendencies would stifle my children. In the absence of self-awareness and conscious effort, I know I could easily become an over-bearing, over-controlling, and under-empowering force in their lives.

As much as I’m bothered by this, I take comfort in two things. One, I’m now aware of it, which is an essential component of change. And two, I know I’m not the only mom whose good intentions to protect and rescue sometimes get out of control. But as much as it comes from a place of genuine love, that doesn’t make it less problematic. Most of us are guilty of over-involvement from time to time, but when the mama bear remains in check and breaches in boundaries are acknowledged, permanent ramifications are unlikely.

If you’re anything like me, it might take a little more effort to keep those tendencies in line, but fortunately, having those tendencies isn’t the problem. It’s failing to recognize and rein them in that causes issues. Recognition and self-awareness are the first steps toward change, so take a moment to test yourself on these common habits:

Rescuer: These moms find it unbearable to watch their children experience negative emotions (frustration, disappointment, sadness, etc.) They are quick to solve their children’s problems and assist them with simple tasks. They can become lax in their discipline style because they can't bear the tears that go along with enforcing rules and setting limits. Rescuers’ tendencies usually stem from their inability to withstand the negative emotions (i.e. helplessness, sympathy, etc.) brewing in their own psyches as they watch their children navigate the bumpy road through life’s necessary challenges. The adult children of chronic rescuers tend to underestimate their abilities and have poor problem-solving skills.

Hoverer: These moms do everything in their power to eliminate risk of physical harm or illness. Yes, it is our job to protect our children from life’s hazards, but hoverers take it to an extreme. They often resemble rescuers, but the motivation is different. Hoverers can withstand their children’s frustration while learning to tie their shoes but not the physical pain of a scraped knee. Hoverers’ tendencies usually stem from a desire to prevent the feelings of guilt that come with seeing their children with an injury or illness that might have been prevented had they been more diligent and protective. The adult children of chronic hoverers tend to view the world as a dangerous place and to shy away from trying new things.

If either of these behaviors resonated with you, fear not. Instead, be proud of your ability to recognize and label them. Greater awareness leads to faster change. If you're a rescuer, lean into the discomfort that comes with watching your child struggle while mastering a new skill and dismiss the urges to provide unnecessary help. If you're a hoverer, lean into the uneasiness that comes from not wiping every public surface they touch and dismiss the guilt demons that tell you every injury is your fault.

Most importantly, always practice self-compassion and patience when you find that you've stumbled into an over-protective pattern. Remember that these behaviors stem from a place of deep, genuine love. The intent of over-involved parents is never to harm their children. Instead, they aim to help, support, and protect. Unfortunately, in their extreme forms, these habits can have lasting effects. Over-protective parents not only run the risk of instilling fears in the hearts of their children, but they risk missing out on watching their children become their truest selves and fulfill their highest potential.

Over the weekend, I experienced a profound moment that perfectly illustrates the plight of the over-protective parent and the importance of developing the awareness and willingness necessary to enact change...    

Reese got a kite for her birthday and all week she begged me to fly it, but our property is thick with trees so instead I promised her we would take with us to my mom’s house for Memorial Day weekend. We pulled into the driveway and she couldn’t wait to get it out. I showed her how to get it started, and waited for her squeals of joy as it began to take flight. The kite was less than 10 feet above my head when she started yelling.

“Stop, Mommy, stop! Take it down!”

“Why? What’s the matter?”

“I’m afraid it’s gonna fall.”

“Well, if it falls to the ground we’ll just start again.”

“But it might blow away or get broken.”

I wanted to promise that it wouldn’t get lost or broken or stuck in a tree, but I couldn’t because all those things were possible outcomes of kite flying. I did my best to reason through it.

“Sweet Pea, kites are made to fly. If we never fly it, then we'll never know how much fun it is and we'll never see how high it goes.”

She couldn’t get past it. I tried to force it for a few more seconds, thinking she would catch on and forget about the danger, but she started to cry. I let the kite float toward the ground, and it came to rest on the grass. She ran over to it and scooped it up.

“I want to put it back in the car.”

I walked her to the car and opened the trunk. She laid it in gently and ran back toward the swing set. I closed the trunk and joined her on the swings. The kite stayed in the car all weekend.

It didn't fall. 

But it also didn't fly. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Coincidence or God Incident?

I sat in the Aldi parking lot drumming my fingers on the steering wheel as the gray cloud overhead spit intermittent raindrops on my windshield. Just two minutes earlier, I reached for the “Aldi quarter” in my cup holder and came up with a gum wrapper. I tossed it into the passenger seat and pulled my wallet from the diaper bag. No cash. None. I checked every crevice of my vehicle. Nothing. So I drummed angrily on the steering wheel as if my frustration had the power to manifest spare change.

I already had one of those mornings. Expired milk, spilled coffee, crabby infant, potential downpour. I knew I should have stayed home. But I went out anyway and now there I was in the Aldi parking lot having a very ridiculous “why me” moment. I eventually gathered my thoughts and surveyed my options. None of them was appealing – probably because I was already aggravated.

Meanwhile, Allie’s fussiness had turned into an all out scream fest. Still undecided about how to solve my original problem, I stepped out of the car and went around to Allie’s side. Her pacifier hit the ground as I opened the door. Really?! I bent down to pick it up and there at my feet was a shiny silver quarter.

My in-laws would call that a “God incident.” When I first met Matt’s family almost eight years ago, I didn’t know what that meant. Before then, I had never thought of God as an active participant in my life. The whole concept seemed really far-fetched. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in God. I had always believed in God. I just didn’t think God believed in me.

There are just so many of us in the world. There is so much suffering and so many unanswered prayers. It seemed like God should have bigger things to worry about than arranging convenient coincidences and reminders for kindness in my little insignificant world.

Over the years, I slowly grew into my faith. I started reading the Bible and trying to live its message. I began to see real acts of God in my daily life, and instead of nodding along with ignorance when someone said “now that’s a God incident,” I began to smile with understanding.

See, I had always pictured God incidents as isolated events involving intentional interventions on the part of our Creator; as if a Divine hand reached down and placed a pen in my dryer to teach me about grace or perfectly timed the stop lights to prevent my tardiness for an important appointment. Looking at them from a small-scale perspective, it is easy to dismiss the possibility of God’s involvement.

But I have come to believe this about God: He doesn’t operate on a small scale level, nor is His involvement in our lives limited to certain events on certain days at certain times. He is ever-present at all times and in all things. His carefully crafted and perfectly orchestrated universe lends itself to these “coincidences” simply because everything in it is entangled in a web of simultaneous existence. The complexity of that existence and the depth of our connection to it are revealed to us in the events that those of us who don’t yet know better would call “coincidences.”

Today, I know better. That’s why I sat crouched in the Aldi parking lot whispering a prayer of gratitude to the Great Orchestrator. It’s not that I think God knowingly placed a quarter under my car to offset my crappy morning. It’s that I believe He created a world that allows the lives of the dropper of a quarter and the finder of that quarter to overlap for a single moment in time. And I believe that if you can see God’s presence in the smallest of things, you can begin to find Him anywhere and everywhere.

Now that I know how to spot His work, God shows up in my life every day. Sometimes He leads me to small things like quarters in parking lots. Sometimes He leads me to big things like houses and jobs. Sometimes it’s a surge of grace and compassion, comfort and healing, or courage and strength on the right day at the right time. Sometimes it’s the urge to give, the will to forgive, or the power to carry on amid the struggles He needs me to face. His form often changes but His presence never does. 

Over time, faith and patience have slowly begun to take the place of the worry and urgency in my life. My last paycheck will hit our account this week, which means the small gap in our income will soon return. Last week I opened an email from some friends who are moving to our subdivision this summer. They wanted to know if I would be interested in watching their three-year-old daughter three to four days a week through the school year. I always said I had absolutely no interest in taking on someone else’s kid unless it was part-time excluding summer for someone I knew who was the same age as Reese. Coincidence? Of course not. 

In the moments where you find your life perfectly overlapped with another, whether it affects you for a single moment or the rest of your days, you can assume the events happened at random and walk away feeling puzzled. That's a coincidence. OR you can recognize your significant role in the complicated web of existence, whisper a prayer of gratitude, and walk away feeling blessed. That’s a God incident.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Lessons from a Part-Time Job

I feel like I should back track a bit before I [attempt to] dive back into my regular posting routine. I submitted the final grades for my class last night, which means my spring semester is officially over. It's hard to believe it's already May. I still don’t know what I was thinking by taking on a job and a baby at the same time, especially without hiring part-time childcare. It’s been a long semester, and I’m thankful to be back to the jobs I do for free. 

Allie is 6 months old now, and she's so adorably smiley. She's lucky she’s so cute because she's a total bearcat. She gets up at 5am every day, takes short unpredictable naps, and has a total fit if I take more than two steps away from her. My mom calls her "Velcro Baby" because she clings to me like a spider monkey and still spends a lot of her day strapped to my chest. It's a wonderful feeling, especially since I didn't get much clingy baby behavior out of Reese, but Allie’s grabby hands and steadily climbing weight have made daily baby wearing somewhat of a challenge. 

Reese will be three on May 28th, which means I spend a lot of time generating answers to questions like, “Why is it 3-o’clock?” and explaining social rules – like why we can’t just choose a random car from the mall parking lot and drive it home. She’s learning about the world at an amazing rate, and her observations are both beautifully innocent and downright hilarious. She’s an awesome kid, but she’s still a typically defiant, antagonistic, and conveniently [for her] forgetful little stinker who gives me a run for my patience every single day. 

Between keeping up with these kids and making time for my job, it’s not a big surprise that I haven’t had time for much else. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I could plan on a daily afternoon nap, but Reese hardly naps at all anymore, and Allie is a stage five cat napper. I ended up doing most of my work after they went to bed, which meant that I was often staying up way too late. Until this semester, the coffee I so often reference in my blog posts has always been decaf. That is definitely no longer the case, and I now have the withdrawal headaches to prove it.

The sleep deprivation and caffeine addiction haven’t been the only consequences of this schedule. I have skipped more meals and showers over the past few months than I would ever care to admit. It is not at all uncommon for me to make lunch for my kids and then deprive myself of a healthy meal. I’ll eat when they nap, I tell myself as I reach for a string cheese, even though I know that if they do actually sleep, I’ll choose productivity over nourishment hands down.

And forget about relaxation. It just doesn’t happen. For starters, I’m not great about finding much down time to begin with. And even when I do try to make plans to do something for me, it’s always the first thing to go when something more pressing comes up.

I came out of this experience feeling really proud of myself for the work I put into my class – even when it got hard, I never cut corners. And yet, I find it interesting that I never allowed myself to slide on anything except when it came to my own well-being.

That’s how I operate. I imagine that’s how a lot of moms operate. Skipping meals and showers, getting behind on sleep, sacrificing much-needed down time, giving up on hobbies. It seems that when life gets stressful, the first thing we do is stop taking care of ourselves.

How counterintuitive is that?! It’s during stressful times that our commitment to self-care should be at its best. I don’t know about you, but for some reason I feel guilty and selfish when I put my own needs first (or second; or third). It’s easy for me to forget that part of being a good mom means being good to myself.

I admit sometimes it's necessary to put ourselves on hold, but consistent patterns of self-neglect have a definite negative affect on everything from our marriages to our parenting skills. Lately, I've started taking notice of the times when I put my needs aside - physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, or socially. I'm trying to recognize and break some of my bad self-care habits - like not sitting down to a real lunch or failing to take time to catch up with friends. And I'm learning to give myself a little less pressure and a little more grace.   

Each season of my life seems busier than the one before, and I'm only 30! I have a lot of running around ahead of me. Sometimes I trick myself into thinking the next phase of life won't be as crazy, but something always comes up. It's taken many years for me to understand (and admit) that real peace doesn't come from calm on the outside. It comes from calm on the inside - a calm that can only settle in when our needs are fully met. 

A wise person once gave me this analogy: If you're ever in an airplane and the oxygen masks drop, there's a reason you're supposed to put your mask on first. After all, if you can't breathe, it's kind of hard to help anyone around you breathe. 

If you're one of those moms who's always going 100 miles an hour and taking care of everyone but yourself, remember to take an occasional step back and look around. If you happen to see your oxygen mask dangling in front of you, grab it and put it on - and remember that you, too, deserve to be able to breathe.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Happy Mother's Day!

I got up at 6:00am with just one goal for the morning – start a roast in the crock pot. I make pot roast all the time. It’s not a big deal. Peel and chop onions, carrots, and potatoes; season the meat; add a little water; press start. When I do it all the night before, it’s a twenty minute process, tops. Yesterday I learned that when I do it in the morning, it’s a four and a half hour ordeal.

I thought I could get it done before Reese woke up. Wishful thinking! I went to the kitchen and Reese was already digging in the pantry for Cheerios (despite being told numerous times not to take food without asking).

“I wanna eeeeeat,” she whined, as if she’d been waiting all morning for her breakfast.

I guess I’m making the roast after breakfast. No big deal. Plenty of time.

I noticed that Reese’s pajama pants were damp.

“Reese, did you pee through your pull-up?”

“I did.”

“And is your bed wet?”

“It is.”

I stripped her bed and changed her clothes. While I was at it, I got myself and Allie dressed too. Then I started her sheets in the washer and made us each a separate breakfast - Cheerios for Reese, oatmeal for me, mashed banana for Allie.

After I cleaned up breakfast, I sent Reese off to play and put Allie in her bouncy chair (at my feet, of course, because I’m not allowed to leave her sight). I was peeling the second onion when Reese appeared behind me, holding up a Wal-Mart bag.

“Mommy, I wanna do this.” It was the supplies we had bought the day before to make Mother’s Day cards.

I was thrilled. She can make cards. I can peel and chop. What could go wrong?

Well, nothing if the bag of supplies didn’t contain a bottle of Elmer’s glue and three tubes of glitter. I totally should have known better.

I spread out the tablecloth and all of the supplies. I went back to the counter and picked up the peeler. Then Allie started crying. She wanted me to hold her. She does this a lot. People tell me to let her cry, but I rarely do. Plus, I knew her crying would lead to me rushing, which would no doubt end in some kind of accidental potato peeler or Cutco knife injury.

I strapped Allie into the Baby Bjorn. (Yeah, I know. Much safer, right? Now both of our fingers were in danger). I started peeling the carrots – now at arms length because of Little Miss Grabby Hands, and I had to stop every 30 seconds or so to monitor the glitter situation over my shoulder.

It was not going well. Apparently, my little glue-sprinkle-shake demo went in one ear and out the other. I had to keep running over to stop her from sprinkling the whole tube of glitter onto one dab of glue, and she needed several reminders to decorate only the cards and not the table or her chair – or herself.

By this point, there was glitter in everybody’s hair and in my pot roast. Allie’s fussiness had escalated into a total meltdown, which reminded me that I was cutting into her naptime, and I still had a pile of potatoes to peel and chop. With an exasperated breath, I put everything on hold.

I fed Allie a bottle and got her down for a nap. Then I helped Reese finish her cards and clean up her mess. I got her a snack and turned on the Tinkerbell movie. The house was quiet. I chopped the rest of the potatoes and seasoned the meat.

At 10:30, I finally pressed the start button on my crock pot.

With Reese occupied and Allie asleep, I went to my bathroom and shut the door. I needed to decompress.

When I was pregnant with Reese, I did my best to mentally prepare for pregnancy, labor, and the financial burden of diapers and college savings. I tried to get ready for the big hurdles I knew I would eventually face – teething, potty training, discipline, sleep schedules.

I did not, however, prepare for the constancy; the intensity; the all day, every day.

I used to think Mother’s Day was about recognizing the big picture of motherhood and giving thanks to the women who birthed us and raised us, the women who love us unconditionally and would do anything for us. But those are the easy parts.

It’s the small stuff that is the real challenge of motherhood. It’s the interrupted showers and cold dinners. It’s the need to say things like “please don’t put your foot on my sandwich.” It’s the fishing-poop-out-of-the-bathtub nights and glitter-in-the-pot-roast mornings. It’s the deep breaths of patience and silent moments of prayer.

Mother’s Day is just as much about the day-to-day little picture as it is about the higher purpose, greater love big picture. My pot roast story isn’t just a funny story about a crazy morning. This is my life. This is every mom’s life. All day, every day. But few people see the intensity of our little picture routine and we don’t often talk about it, which means it often goes unnoticed.

This year, thank the mothers in your life not just for the big things, but for all the little things too. Thank them for the willingness to wear a curious infant despite the inconvenience. Thank them for supporting a toddler’s love for messy arts and crafts. Thank them for the things no one else sees - the messes made and cleaned, tantrums thrown and calmed, and tears cried and wiped. All day, every day.

And if you ever see sit down for a nice hot meal and see a shiny fleck of glitter in your food, just smile with understanding, eat it with gratitude, and know just how much love and patience is sitting on your plate.

Happy Mother's Day to the all day, every day moms!