Tuesday, November 5, 2002

November, 2002: Permanent Teeth

I was crossing the playground during recess on my way to the school office last Wednesday when Jacob’s permanent teeth ran by.
Jacob was, of course, attached to his permanent teeth, and I’m pretty sure my little boy’s other body parts ran by as well. But all I saw were his two front permanent teeth. In a strange split second of a mental hiccup, my brain grabbed images of my son at every stage of his life, and I saw baby-toddler-preschool-second grade Jacob all at once. Running towards me was the 1995-model Jacob I had originally been given, except now a couple feet taller and with two large teeth where his tiny baby ones had been.
The infant I used to carry tucked snugly in the crook of my arm is now a kid who runs around at recess with permanent teeth. The thought is startling.
I am beginning to realize this growing thing isn’t temporary. It keeps happening. Just when I get used to a new phase of parenting, it ends and turns into something else. 
For me, parenting started very slowly. I was aware of each day of both my pregnancies’ first trimesters; every morning, the clock would creep toward 11 a.m., when the nausea would finally pass. Once the babies were born, an hour pacing or rocking in the middle of the night seemed to contain ninety, rather than sixty minutes.
But things started picking up speed after the one-year mark for each of the boys. Rather than anticipating milestones, as I did when I waited for baby Jacob to roll over or for baby Liam to grow hair, the milestones started crashing into me.
Baby books told me what to expect that first year. Peeking ahead, I knew I was supposed to take note of my sons’ first smiles, babbles and steps. I waited for these events and duly recorded them on the appropriate pages. Sometimes I wasn’t even sure why I was writing them down. How much difference is there, really, between a baby who rolls over and one still working on that skill?
Permanent teeth are endlessly more significant than rolling over, and no one warned me about them. Permanent teeth mark the beginning of the end of cute.  While kindergarteners, still awaiting their first visit from the tooth fairy, are darling, and first graders, with gaping toothless grins, are simply ravishing, second graders are growing out of cute and into good-looking. You can’t easily scoop a second-grader into your arms.
My son’s permanent teeth are his first outward sign of a still-faraway adulthood. While his arms and legs will continue to grow and his face will change as he gets older, his two front teeth are as big as they’ll ever be. And it makes me wonder what else about him is “permanent.” His quiet, thoughtful personality seems pretty well set. He’s not one to grab center stage, and I doubt he ever will be. He’s loved learning about undersea life for about three years now; I used to think dolphins and whales were a passing phase, but I’m not so sure anymore.
I’m realizing the milestones of childhood that stand out to me are those moments when I glimpse — if only for a moment — the people my children are becoming. They are the moments I sense “permanency”—when I know that I’m not seeing a developmental period that my sons will grow out of, but rather a personality or passion that they’re in the process of growing into. Milestones now have less to do with mastery of skills and more to do with emerging values I see — those times when my sons make a choice in behavior that comes not from a fear of a time-out, but rather from a desire to do right. And these moments are not listed in the baby books. They’re left for parents to discover at odd times; in unlikely places.

            When I left Jacob’s school that day, recess was ending, and my son was lined up with his class. The magical baby-toddler-kid was gone, and I once again saw Jacob as I usually do — a skinny seven-year-old with a sprinkling of freckles and smiling hazel eyes. But as Jacob walked into the school, I couldn’t help but think about those permanent teeth. And wonder about the other permanent things I could not see.

Thursday, October 3, 2002

October, 2002: Oh Yeah, Life goes on....

Little ditty about Jack and Diane. Two American kids growin’ up in the heartland.  John Mellencamp’s popular song makes me uneasy. Whenever it comes on the radio as I’m making the bed or driving the kids to school, I stop and listen. And the refrain that comes shortly after that famous beginning always startles me. Makes me swallow hard. Makes me bite my lip and check to see if it is true for me yet.
            Oh yeah, life goes on,
 Long after the thrill of livin’ is gone.
            Part of me wants to believe there is no truth to the lyric at all — that life gets more exciting the older you get, with the golden years — not the teenage ones — topping out as the best. But another part of me hears the reality in the lines. There is something unequivocally thrilling about being young. I see it in my own children. My son, Liam, 4, actually starts to bounce when he is offered sprinkles on his vanilla ice cream cone, and Jacob, 7, yowls in delight at the announcement of a family walk to the park. Children’s developmental changes between birth and young adulthood mean that every year they’re doing things they’ve never done before, whether it’s riding a two-wheeler or catching a football or kissing someone for the first time.
And even if they’ve had ice cream with sprinkles or walks to the park before, they’ve surely not had them hundreds of times. They’re in their first round of these little treats. And that’s why it’s thrilling.
Parents have the privilege of some vicarious thrills. Listening to Jacob read his first book, beginning to end, would fall into the ‘thrilling’ category for me. And anyone with a toddler knows the oddly victorious feeling that comes from witnessing the first tinkle on the potty.
While experiencing second-hand thrills through my children is undoubtedly one of the sweetest parts of parenting, Mellencamp’s song reminds me I need to be careful not to allow these second-hand thrills to become my only thrills. My husband and I need to have thrills that are ours alone. And in the midst of a house littered with the socks, toys and grubby fingerprints of small boys, it can seem like personal thrills come few and far between.
Oh yeah, life goes on,
Long after the thrill of livin’ is gone.
 One reason that childhood and adolescence are arguably more thrilling than adulthood is that children are not allowed to stay in one place for long. First grade is replaced by second and J.V. becomes varsity. Change is a regular part of the life of a child or teen, and change automatically brings challenge. And thrills.
Adults don’t have the luxury of someone else moving us along. Whether or not we stay in a job that’s comfortable, but too easy, is our own decision. The ruts we often fall into — cooking the same spaghetti recipe every Monday, sticking with the same hobbies or exercise plan, even praying the same way we’ve always prayed — are ours to keep if we choose. While no one would allow a child to remain in kindergarten a few years because she doesn’t want to replace finger painting with reading and math, few question an adult’s choice of comfort over challenge. But the decision not to change or challenge ourselves is what makes the lyric of this song come true.
Oh yeah, life goes on,
Long after the thrill of livin’ is gone.
We have a magic marker sign, made by Jacob, taped to our pantry door. It says, “Holy Spirit, Help us to be brave, strong friends of Jesus.” It’s decorated with three crosses, a couple stars and yellow zigzags.
That sign has become a prayer to me as well as a challenge. It’s also the closest thing I have to a rebuttal to Mellencamp’s refrain. By definition, you can’t be either strong or brave if you’re not doing something difficult. And conquering the difficult is always thrilling.
Jacob’s carefully drawn words of  “Help us to be brave, strong friends of Jesus” remind me that living as a Christian should be thrilling, because Jesus’ way is very different from what is easy and ordinary. The sign tells me that during those times when I wonder if the thrills are fading, I need to delve deeper into what bravery and strength mean in terms of Christianity.
I know a couple who, in their early thirties, left stable jobs and took their two young children to Tanzania, Africa, for a couple years of volunteer work. Another couple I know — with five children — regularly opens their home to poor women and their children who need a hot meal or a temporary place to stay.  No worry about the “thrill of livin’” leaving anytime soon for these two families.
Every thrill starts with fear. The thrilling moment comes when we break through that fear — the moment we decide: “I’m terrified, but I’m going forward anyway.” 

And when this decision to go forward despite fear is applied to following the teachings of Jesus — to loving others, to standing up for justice, to serving the poor — we become both brave and strong. We become people alive with the thrill of Gospel living.

Sunday, September 8, 2002

September, 2002: Abduction of Values

This past summer and spring, it seemed that each week, there was news of a new child abduction. From Milwaukee’s little Alexis Patterson to Utah’s Elizabeth Smart, each case left me nauseated and afraid. For awhile, I reacted to the stories as if my responsibility as a mother was to assume an abduction could happen to my two boys — ages 7 and 4 — anywhere, anytime. I hovered on the porch as they played in front of the house. I took note of unfamiliar cars in our neighborhood. My husband and I reviewed the “don’t go with strangers” rule and rehashed our “these body parts are private” discussions.  We amended our talks about being nice to everyone and gave our usually-polite little boys  permission to yell and scream and bite and kick if anyone ever tried to take them. Mostly, we walked the tightrope between not scaring the boys with too much information and giving them enough to offer some protection.
Protection. The more I thought about the role my husband and I have as our children’s protectors (in addition to being their cooks, garbage collectors, chauffeurs and entertainers), the less likely abduction by a stranger seemed and the more likely abduction by society in general became. While strangers snatching children is still so rare and terrible that it makes front page news, the abduction of a child’s value system is so common, many of us don’t see it anymore.
I decided I needed be less worried about some nameless villain lurking in the shadows and more worried about the dominant American culture kidnapping the souls of my sons.
Every generation of parents has had its own enemy to fight in terms of protecting their young. Ages ago, cold winters, starvation and wild animals posed the biggest danger to children. In the more recent past, parents were terrified of polio. Today, the biggest threats to our children are insidious and in disguise. Materialism, consumerism, and a culture that glorifies violence, casual sex and self-centeredness prey on our children on a daily basis.
For the first time in human history, many stand to gain more — at least in the short term — by corrupting children than by caring for them. 
There is money to be made in selling children toys they don’t need and clothes that will go out of style in six months; in convincing them to buy food that corrodes their arteries and entertainment that corrodes their minds. There’s money to be made in taking teens’ natural interest in sex and using it to sell everything from CDs to TV shows to glossy girls’ magazines. Too many stand to make a huge profit if they can convince children that in all things, more is not enough.
I realized, as I watched my little boys play in the front yard, that the Gospel values of living simply, caring little for possessions and reaching out to the marginalized are not only different than the values of society at large, but are actually at odds with those values. And that’s where abduction comes in. Because in order for big corporations to convince my sons that they need to watch a cartoon with rude or violent characters, buy countless plastic action figures or judge people by the brands they’re wearing, they will first need to convince my children that the values they have been taught at home are wrong. They will need to steal our family’s — our faith’s — teachings. And they’re working hard to do it — with clever billboards, slick commercials, and even by using those children whose value systems they’ve already stolen.
But my husband and I, and many parents we know, are working just as hard. Having been given the gift and responsibility of parenthood, we are holding tight to our children, even as our culture strains to pull them from us. We are seeing through the empty promises of commercials and are teaching our children to do the same. We are deciding that driving past is often better than driving “thru.” We are acting as guardians and protectors of our children — making decisions about what music, TV programs and clothes are welcome in our home — and which are not. And most importantly, we are making choices in our own lives that teach our children that we value helping people and protecting the earth over buying more and more stuff. 

And yet, I know no matter what we do, it is still possible that our children’s values may be abducted, for there are no guarantees. We offer them the best protection we know and send them out into the world — and we pray they will not be taken.

Sunday, August 4, 2002

August, 2002-- Shopping for my boy in the Girls department

            Three years ago, when my son Liam was just beginning to toddle, all of his clothes were cute. Tiny trains made their way across the front of his overalls. Smiling lions peeked out from pockets. Some of his hats even had ears. A friend of mine has a girl, Tyra, about the same age, and her baby clothes were darling as well. Fuzzy kittens, ladybugs, the whole bit. When Liam turned three, though, something changed. While Tyra's clothes continued to sprout animals with big eyes and goofy grins, Liam's became more subdued. Tyra had bumblebees, elephants and Elmo. Liam had flannel shirts and jeans.
  Shopping for a gift in the little girls' department, I found it bursting whimsical patterns and bright colors. The boys' department, on the other hand, was determined to stay serious, concentrating instead on forest green and all things sports. I was annoyed.
It wasn't that I wanted my son to wear daisies and frills or to be any less masculine. The child exited the womb knowing how to make car sounds, and could hit solid grounders before he was out of diapers. I was fine with that. It was just that when I described him as a little boy, "little" was the operative word, and I wanted his clothing to reflect this. At age three, he had more in common with the drooling baby a few doors down than he did with the preteen boys in their low-riding jeans who skateboarded on our street. And I knew that there was precious little time this would be true.
After looking at one too many rugby shirts one day while folding laundry, I decided to beat the system. Armed with my charge card, I strode into the local department store and headed for the pink sign that said Girls. After flipping through a few racks of shirts that were too flowery, too frilly, or too pink, I found what I was looking for: a striped blue and white sweater, size four. There were no flowers, no bows, no ruffles. On the front though, was sewn an adorable fuzzy brown bear. The ears stuck out, and the bear smiled at me shyly as I looked at it. It was the perfect sweater for a three-year-old boy.
Liam loved the sweater, and so did his buddies on our block. I was hooked. When I wanted a new outfit for him to wear for his first day of pre-school, I did only a cursory check of the boys' department, then went to the girls' section and found a navy sweater vest stitched with primary colored ABC's, crayons and pencils. He wore it with a crisp white t-shirt and khaki pants.
When I told my friends about my exciting discovery, showing them my newest find, a red Winnie-the-Pooh sweatshirt, they seemed confused. They wondered why I cared what he wore. I paused at their questions. Why did I care so much? I’m a woman who doesn’t know the current fashion trend until it makes its way to the clearance rack. In my free time, I read Newsweek, not Vogue. Why was I suddenly so concerned about the wardrobe possibilities for young boys?
            Upon reflection, I discovered my concerns went deeper than the clothes themselves. What bothers me is the message implicit in the difference between boys' and girls' clothes. The fact that my husband could safely wear a larger size of just about anything in the boys' department, but I'd look ridiculous in adult versions of the little girl clothes tells me that it’s okay for girls to be small and cute, but boys are expected to be little men. While strides have been made in the last generation, it's still true that girls can cry when their feelings are hurt, but boys are expected to hold back their tears. Middle school girls take stuffed animals to slumber parties; boys leave theirs in the darkness of their own bedrooms. Studies show that parents tend to hug and touch their little girls more than their boys. And a baby boy might be referred to as a "tough" little guy, but few would use the same adjective for a baby girl. There is something unsettling about these things. All children have the right to be children; to be small and protected, to be vulnerable and un-tough. They need to be able to cry and be held. They need permission to be kids in a world which seems intent on selling adulthood to children.
The flip side of my problem with little boys’ clothes, my friends with girls tell me, is that once their girls outgrow size 7, the stores offer them slinky, midriff-baring, Brittany-inspired outfits that would be more appropriate on a rock stage than a playground. Should these moms visit the boys’ department for some nice solid-colored turtlenecks to wear under those outfits? Yikes.
             As far as four-year-old Liam is concerned, though, Girls 4-7 continues to offer strong possibilities occasionally. While I know that bright colors and ABC's won't change everything, a fuzzy bear on the front Liam's sweater might remind me how young he really is; it might make me bend down and touch his chubby cheeks. Though I may not even be conscious of it, that bear might earn my son an extra hug. And I'll shop for extra hugs in whatever department sells them.

*          *          *

Tuesday, March 5, 2002

March, 2002 Jacob's first ashes

Jacob, my first grader, received ashes this past Ash Wednesday for the first time. And I wept.
I didn’t expect for it to be such an emotional experience. After all, receiving ashes is not a sacrament, and sometimes children much younger than my son receive them as they stand next to their parents. As a preschooler and kindergartener, though, little Jacob had hid his face behind my leg as I received my ashes, so that the unfamiliar minister could not mark his forehead. This Ash Wednesday, though, Jacob was not with me for Mass. He was with his class, and I was a dozen pews behind him, with the rest of the parents. There would be no leg to hide behind.
            As Jacob approached the sixth grade teacher to receive his ashes, I was one aisle over, in line for my own ashes, watching him.
            Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
            Dust. In moments, the teacher was going to tell my son he was dust, and that he would return to dust someday. The teacher was going to tell Jacob he would someday die. And standing in line to receive my own ashes, I knew she was speaking the truth. But hearing the words repeated over and over as each person before me received his or her ashes, I recognized that I held in my heart the tiniest hope that this phrase wouldn’t be true for my son. That Jacob would somehow beat the system. That he wouldn’t suffer and die like the rest of us. That maybe, if my husband and I could just love him enough, dust to dust would not apply.
            Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
            In his homily, the priest had explained the phrase to the children by saying we are only on Earth a certain amount of time. He had held his hands about three feet apart, emphasizing with each hand the beginning and the end of life. During this life, he said, Jesus wants us to be the very best disciples we can be. The ashes remind us we only have a short time to do this.
            And as I looked at Jacob, now just three children away from receiving his ashes, I suddenly realized that his time to be a disciple had already begun. He was old enough to understand Father’s homily; old enough to understand about life being about 80 years if you’re lucky and possibly much shorter. He was old enough to start being a disciple. 
            And that’s when my tears welled. For there is something wonderful and terrible about watching someone you love become a disciple. Being a follower of Jesus is never easy, if you do it right. And to invite a child to become a disciple is to invite that child to enter into some of the suffering that discipleship requires. Parental love made me want to shield my son from any pain. Christian love called me to help him learn to live his life in a rhythm of continual dying and rising with Christ.
Earlier, on the way to school, Jacob and I had talked about the rice that he and his classmates would have for lunch that day as part of Operation Rice Bowl. The money saved from not buying the regular school menu items would be given to the poor. As I drove, we talked about the circumstances of the children in the world who do not get enough to eat each day. I asked Jacob why he thought we chose to eat just rice, and didn’t simply eat our regular food, and give the same amount of money to the poor. How can your hunger help kids so far away? I asked. Troubled, Jacob thought for a moment, then said that maybe if we were hungry after lunch because of just eating rice, we would understand a little how it must feel to be hungry all the time, and maybe we would help more because of it.
Old enough to understand. Old enough to be a disciple.

And so, my son stepped forward to receive his ashes. And I stood, watching—somehow as both parent and fellow journeyer. Dust to dust, dear Jacob. Life is so short. Live as a disciple.