Monday, October 11, 2010

October, 2010-- Hearts outside my body

When I was pregnant with our first child, Jacob, more than 15 years ago, I came upon this quote by author and mother Elizabeth Stone: “Making the decision to have a child - it's momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”

Overly-dramatic, I thought at the time. Surely, Ms. Stone is exaggerating. While I didn’t doubt that having a child would change my life, a heart walking around outside of my body was a ridiculous idea. My child would have his identity, I would have mine, and while I would certainly care and be concerned about what happened to him, there was no way I would feel like my own heart was walking around.

Then I had Jacob. And within a day of his birth, I understood that Elizabeth Stone was not being overly-dramatic or sentimental. She was simply stating a fact. The investment of motherhood is so intense and intimate that the line between where a child ends and where the mother begins becomes blurred.

Each subsequent child after Jacob added a new heart walking around outside of my body. And as the children are becoming older and more complex emotionally, one of the things I am discovering is that if I am to be an effective mother to four children, I need to be able to find and claim that spot where each of my children end and I begin, as blurry as it may be.

When I had babies and preschoolers, most of their emotional life was within my control and I managed it. It was relatively easy to see what the problem was and get to the bottom of it—he’s screaming because he doesn’t want to clean up his toys; he gets a time-out for screaming, then still has to clean up the toys — problem solved.

In a family of six, it is rare that everyone has a sensational day at the same time. With  four hearts walking around outside of my body, the risk is that I will absorb the pain of the most broken heart each day. Three kids have a good day; one is sad because of  something outside of my control —and that’s the pain I absorb. That’s the child I’m thinking about in bed that night. The risk is that I will never have a sensational day.

The danger of motherhood is the paradox of control. There is so much is within our control in terms of how we can shape our children’s behavior, their morals, the decisions they make in school, the way they learn to relate to others. In many ways, we are the major determining force in our children’s lives. Yet at the same time, our children will have experiences that will have nothing to do with us, and these experiences will shape them and form them as well.

When I look at successful mothers who are a stage or two beyond me—mothers with teens or college-aged kids—what I see is balance between a heart-outside-my body love of their child and a deep respect for that child as an individual apart from them.

These mothers have learned to acknowledge their child’s struggles and problems without being consumed by them. They offer support while at the same time recognizing that it’s not up to them to be the problem solver each time. They have come to a place where they realize that even the heart outside the body needs to find its own path and make its own way. They have learned that it’s possible to have a sensational day even when one of their  children has a mediocre one.

These mothers inspire me and shine a light for me. As I watch them, I’m learning to find that blurry spot where each of my children ends and I begin. As I watch these mothers, I’m  learning how to live with the strange sensation of four hearts walking around outside my body.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

September, 2010-- Our struggle with keeping holy the Sabbath

Our family has had trouble with the fourth commandment. Keep holy the Sabbath day.  It’s not that we skip Mass on Sunday, but rather that too often, we only keep holy the Sabbath hour and a half (our time at Mass), rather than the Sabbath day itself.
            We live in a neighborhood with a high population of Orthodox Jews. Their Sabbath runs from sundown Friday evening to sundown Saturday. During this twenty-four hour period, they may not drive, cook, clean, shop, mow their laws, do laundry, repair problem areas of their home or play in soccer tournaments. There are probably additional things they may not do, but these are the ones I notice, since that’s what Bill and I are generally up to while they are walking past our house back and forth to synagogue.
            One Saturday afternoon, David and Liz, our Orthodox friends down the street stopped by so our children could play together. Bill had been weed whacking at the time and I had just taken a week’s worth of socks and underwear out of the dryer. We stopped our work to chat, and talk soon turned to the Sabbath. 
            “On the Sabbath, we spend a lot of time visiting and talking with other people, because we can’t do much else,” David explained as I peppered him with questions. “Most of the people we visit with are also Orthodox Jews because they’re the only ones who have the time off to do the same thing.”
            “In fact, David, we should be going because we interrupted them from their work,” his wife nudged.
            But Bill and I urged them to stay. I knew my 84 socks and 42 pairs of underwear  would wait patiently for me, and I wanted to learn more how this Orthodox family with three kids could manage to set aside a full day for God and relationships, when our own family seemed not to have an hour to spare.
            Talking about it later, Bill and I decided our family needed a Sabbath. Aside from Mass, we acknowledged that our Sunday didn’t really look that different from any other day of the week. Chores; running kids to activities; last-minute projects from work; errands. It’s not that what we were doing was so bad—it just wasn’t especially holy.
            In the book Sabbath, author Dan Allender makes a case for Christians to take the Sabbath as holy. He defines “holy” as “set aside,” and writes, “Sabbath is the day we practice for eternity. It requires that we receive, intend and protect the day. The bind is that if we let the day happen spontaneously, it will usually dissolve into the route of least resistance.” 
            As Bill and I planned what we wanted our Sabbaths to be, we held onto to Allender’s assertion of Sabbath: “Sabbath is about relationship, nature and beauty.”  Bill and I knew we could never keep our Sabbaths at home if we hoped for them to feel holy and set aside. The call of the socks, weeds, e-mail and cluttered basement would be too loud.
            Instead, we decided that after attending Mass, our Sabbaths would be spent outside, in a beautiful environment, with the whole family.
            Allender aims high with his Sabbath plans: “The Sabbath calls us to receive and to create with God the delight he gives and invites us to orchestrate for his glory. It requires surrender and imagination.”
            For us, the surrender involves letting go of the thousand things we “should” be doing to join in the delight that Allender promises God offers. The imagination comes in finding simple, outdoors activities that have elements that can be enjoyed by all of us.         We’ve been keeping our Sabbaths for more than a year now, and it’s been one of our best family decisions. We’ve seen miles of the Ice Age Trail and have visited every state park within an hour of our house. Much of our Sabbath involves hiking. Often two members of the family pair up for a discussion on the path— conversations that likely would not have happened otherwise. Arguing among kids is kept to a minimum because everyone is moving and has plenty of space. We have found that Allender is correct in how nature and beauty connect us to God.
            Like all spiritual practices, our family’s keeping of the Sabbath has ebbed and flowed. We were terrible about keeping it this past spring, but we seem to do especially well during autumn and winter. Liam’s favorite Sabbath was a horse-drawn sleigh ride last January on a farm just north of Milwaukee-- despite temperatures that dipped below zero. Jacob and T appreciate any Sabbath outing that includes a sand volleyball court. A couple of Sundays ago, it started to rain on our way to Naga-Waukee Park and Jamie moaned, “This is the worst Sabbath ever.” But we found a picnic shelter to eat beneath and the rain ended before our hike began, so even Jamie had to admit it turned out to be a good Sabbath after all.

            I still marvel at our Jewish neighbors and their 24-hour commitment to the Sabbath. Our family Sabbaths are not even full days yet—they are more like Sabbath afternoons. But Sabbath for us has grown to mean so much more than a morning at church. We protect the day as much as we are able, and try not to beat ourselves up when we fall short. Through our Sabbaths, we have found Allender’s words to be true: “Delight doesn’t require a journey thousands of miles away, but it does require a separation from the mundane, an intentional choice to enter joy and follow God.”

Sunday, July 11, 2010

July, 2010-- My father-in-law: Living the vows

It’s probably good that the wedding vows are very general. Catholic wedding vows are just two sentences long:  “I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.”
            Perhaps there are a few young couples who grasp exactly what they’re promising with those sentences, but most—myself included—stand on that altar and think the words about bad times and sickness are more of a formality.
            As a twenty-five-year-old bride, sickness to me still meant a case of strep throat, and a bad time was rain at Summerfest.  The naiveté of youth blended with the fairytale tulle of the wedding dress and the two-foot tall cake for dessert seemed to whisper “liar” to the hints of trouble in the vows. 
            Now, sixteen years into marriage, I would stand on that altar with Bill again and promise my life to him, once again, but I would also understand that just as the word “good” cannot do justice to the exquisite joy of the moment of a baby’s birth or child’s adoption, so the word “bad” cannot contain the profound sorrow of loss and pain.
            Bill’s mom died of Alzheimer’s disease three weeks ago. It was by no means the first death we have experienced as a couple, but it was the closest. Watching my father-in-law care for his wife during the eight-year progression of her illness taught me the depth of the sanctity of marriage. Alzheimer’s is a cruel and sneaky disease. It started off looking like normal forgetfulness— Nancy misplacing her keys or reaching for the wrong word in a sentence.  It progressed to the somewhat worrisome—Nancy adding flour rather than powdered sugar to the cake frosting. At each stage, we lost her a little more. A usually bright and engaged conversationalist, she became increasingly unable to keep up with chatter at the dinner table. As the disease progressed, she lost her ability to cook, to keep the calendar and checkbook, to drive, and in the final year, even to dress and care for herself.
            My father-in-law, Harry, responded to his wife’s illness by living his marriage vows so completely and so beautifully, it took my breath away. Harry would never say he was living the vows. Harry was a computer analyst and programmer before he retired; a straightforward and practical man, not given to poetic expressions or liturgical language, so he would just say, “I made chicken and potatoes for dinner,” if he said anything at all. But for a groom of the 1960s whose responsibilities as a husband had not included making meals, keeping the house or calendar, or doing much of what would be considered “women’s work,” Harry’s decision to take on the full care of his wife, along with doing all the things she used to do, was to me, exactly what is meant by honoring your spouse all the days of your life.
            A few years into Nancy’s illness, I suggested to Harry that he didn’t need to worry about gifts for myself and the kids for birthdays and holidays. Gift-buying had been Nancy’s department and I didn’t want to burden him with one more responsibility. I think I may have offended him, because he sputtered something about how it was not going to be a problem. And it wasn’t. Apparently, he had been absorbing Nancy’s sense of style through the years; while I wasn’t too surprised with the remote control vehicles he gave to the boys, I was amazed by the fabulous clothes he managed to pick out for both the girls and myself.
            “Great sweater,” a co-worker said to me at work one day shortly after Christmas.             “Thanks. My father-in-law gave it to me,” I said.
            “Who has a father-in-law who can buy them clothes?” she said incredulously.
            A father-in-law who is living the vows, I thought.
            As Nancy’s condition worsened, Harry—in Bill’s words at the eulogy—became a Superhero. He took on more and more of Nancy’s care; managing her medicine; feeding her; dressing her. Sometimes he was hard on himself, saying he wasn’t patient enough. In her final year, he was smart enough to know what was best for her; sending her to adult day care a few days a week so she would be in a safe setting while he got things done in the house. Two months before her death, he found a nursing home a mile from their home. She moved there, and Harry visited every day to feed her lunch.
            On the day of Nancy’s death, Bill, Harry and I were together in her nursing home room, along with the hospice nurse. Nancy was struggling to breathe. Harry knew it was time. I said goodbye to Nancy. Harry left the room and I thanked her for being such a good mother-in-law, for welcoming me into the family and sharing her son with me; for being a wonderful grandmother to our children.
            And now, a few weeks later, I have someone else to thank, and that’s Harry. For giving me a model of what it means to live those marriage vows.
            “I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.”
            So, that’s what it looks like. Got it.

            Thank you, Harry.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

April, 2010-- Denial is a dangerous place for parents

There’s a framed school portrait on our guest bathroom wall of kindergartener Liam smiling happily with a big, blue Bob-the-Builder Band-aid pasted between his upper lip and nose. Liam’s eyes are twinkling and he is apparently unbothered by having a large swath of plastic taped on his face on picture day.
             Other school portraits of our kids have come and gone; usually we keep just the most recent picture of each child displayed. But something about that picture has always spoken to me, and even though Liam is now in sixth grade and the stitches in his upper lip have long since healed, the picture remains, and I notice that guests occasionally leave our bathroom chuckling.
            Liam’s smiling Band-aid photo captures for me the essence of the journey of parenting. It’s not the smooth, untroubled times that form us and our children—it is the difficult times that we work through, cry through, and finally emerge from, somehow stronger and more joyful. Liam’s stitches don’t stand out as a particularly difficult moment for our family (yes, there was the screaming, the blood, the emergency room, and the Velcro papoose they needed to tie him down--  but all of that was less than 20 minutes). But the picture does symbolize for me the far more seriously challenging times we’ve made it through as a family.
            And every family has them.
            A friend of mine got divorced and shortly afterward, one of their three young sons was diagnosed with leukemia. At the time, I remember wondering how she could possibly make it through this. The weight of what she was dealing with looked crushing to me. Yet, the community rallied; brought her meals; prayed for her and with her. She, in turn, approached the illness rather matter-of-factly, spending long days at the hospital and at home nursing him through the chemo, believing he would get better. He responded well to the treatment and now, about seven years later, he has been in remission for about five years and is a great athlete. I see her in Mass, with her three big boys. She is not crushed. She is strong and whole.
            Difficult sections of parenting are terrifying because we fear they may either never end or may end badly. Because of this, some parents choose denial during the difficult periods. I have seen parents of children who are clearly bullying others at school make excuses for their child, blame the victim for overreacting, or otherwise shrug off their child’s behavior. These parents may be afraid that they have made mistakes that led to the bullying; or perhaps they fear the measures they might take to stop it won’t be successful; or perhaps dealing with their child’s poor behavior will require energy and time that they don’t believe they have. Their fear causes them to freeze. They ignore the problem, hoping that a happy ending will build itself. But in doing so, they miss out on the joy and satisfaction that comes when a family acknowledges a problem; works through it; and after maybe weeks or months—or even years; solves it. They miss their smiling Band-aid moment because they refused to acknowledge that stitches were needed in the first place.
             We only need to look at the Gospels to see that Jesus is all about acknowledging sickness, failure or sin in order to bring about new life and healing. He steps into problems rather than away from them. He heals the hemorrhaging woman; brings Lazarus back to life; gives the blind man sight. When he sees people making bad choices, his relationship with them brings about change —the woman at the well with many lovers starts living a moral life after meeting Jesus; Zacchaeus, who cheated people out of taxes, gives half his money to the poor when Jesus comes for dinner at his home; Saul stops persecuting Christians and transforms into St. Paul after meeting the risen Christ.
            Imagine if, instead of stepping into problems, Jesus would have simply smoothed them over, saying about the hemorrhaging woman “I’m sure her bleeding is just a stage.” Yet, some parents do this. Unwilling to believe they have the ability or responsibility to stop the hemorrhage, they allow their child to continue unhealthy or destructive behavior. Friends who are teachers tell me about parents who come to them not in a spirit of collaboration to help a child who is struggling, but instead, with a spirit of defensiveness to their child and aggressiveness toward the teacher, refusing to acknowledge their child’s faults; blaming the teacher for picking on the child. 
            If our faith calls us to become Christ to others, the first “others” we must heal and transform are our children. We must recognize that the most difficult aspects of parenting aren’t evidence that we’ve failed, but rather are opportunities to become more than we thought we were capable of. But this requires us to first acknowledge the hemorrhage; the immorality; the sickness. Being Christ to our children requires us to step into problems rather than away from them.
            And it requires us to stick with the problem until there is resolution—to pray our way through issues, while working every brain cell God gave us. We are called, as parents, to give everything we are to pulling the best from our children, understanding that sometimes pulling this best from kids is a joyful task, and sometimes it is sheer pain.
And when we do this; when we acknowledge the pain, step into the hurt; enter into the difficulty; that is when the miracle will begin to occur. For pulling the best from our children—no matter how hard— is love in action. And love transforms.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

March 2010-- Bananas

During the Offertory, I started thinking about bananas.
            It was a Friday in Lent and I was at 8 a.m. Mass in part because Bill and I were going to have a staffing that afternoon with our foster daughter’s biological parents, her social workers, her guardian ad litem, the foster parents of her biological brothers and their social workers. Quarterly staffing meetings are often uncomfortable, sometimes volatile, and usually unproductive. Waking up the day of a staffing produces in me the same emotions as waking up the day of a scheduled tooth filling, but without the assurance of Novocain.
            And that’s why I had bananas on my mind.
            At the afternoon’s staff meeting I was planning to ask Teenasia’s biological father for permission to have her baptized and receive her First Communion. The social worker had asked him for permission a couple months earlier, and the answer had been an unequivocal no. Despite Teenasia’s father’s two-year no-contact order with his children, he still had parental rights, and as such, retained authority over decisions in his children’s lives in areas of religion, health and travel. He said “no” simply because he had the right to do so— refusing T the opportunity to cross state lines for our family vacation last summer; refusing to allow the medication that his son needed; and now, refusing permission to baptize.
            Complicating the matter was that Teenasia was focused on receiving First Communion in a way that went far beyond what I saw of my sons’ interest when they were second graders. “Of all the children in my class,” Mrs. Wong told me at conferences, “no one wants First Communion more than Teenasia.”  So I needed that permission — because Teenasia needed the permission. She had been hurt by her father enough.
            Bananas. I sat there in church, not feeling spiritual in the least. The readings did not produce that sense of resonance they sometimes do, as if the writers were speaking about my life in particular. The homily didn’t stir me. I was not moved by the congregation around me, the songs, responses or the petitions.
            The offertory song began and I realized I was there for the Eucharist, for the grace it offered, with a dry, matter-of-fact belief in the Eucharist that was suddenly reminding me of bananas.
            When I was a competitive runner in high school and college, I would get so nervous before races that I didn’t want to eat at all. I wasn’t hungry and had no desire to do anything but get the race over with. The morning of each race, though, I knew that whether I felt like it or not, my body needed energy. And so, dry-mouthed and sometimes slightly nauseous, I would force myself to eat a banana, knowing they were quick energy, easily digestible and provided 100 precious calories. I didn’t eat the banana because I felt strongly about the banana, or had a desire for the banana. Instead, I ate the banana because, strangely, I had faith in that banana. Not the kind of faith that makes you cry or tell your story of conversion. Rather, my faith in the banana was simply that I knew the banana had 100 calories, and those calories were going to work for me.
            Before the offertory song began, I had been alarmed by my own sense of spiritual apathy. I knew it was an important day; knew that I had chosen to attend Mass for a reason. I wanted to be buoyed by faith; I wanted emotion and connection to the liturgy around me.  Yet, as I sat, barely singing, watching the words in the hymnal go in and out of focus, I understood that I would take the Eucharist that day much as I used to eat bananas—without desire or emotion but with the knowledge that I was doing the most nourishing thing I could at that moment.      
            The gift bearers handed the bread and wine to the priest and I noted, without joy or excitement, that I would receive grace from the Eucharist that day— not because of anything that I was, but because of what the Eucharist was. The banana’s power was in the banana, not in my belief in the banana, and the same was true for the Eucharist. I would receive Christ, and Christ’s grace would fill me whether I desired it or not; whether I had emotion about it or not, whether I understood how it would happen or not. Bananas give energy and the Eucharist gives grace. My emotional state at the time of consumption of either was irrelevant.
            And so I received Communion. I went back to my pew, knelt down and did not pray. Could not pray. I just knelt there and looked around, feeling nervous and thinking of bananas.
            Later that afternoon, the grace came. It came so brightly and so well that I didn’t even have time to think of bananas. I brought to the staffing a letter Teenasia had written to our seminarian, explaining why she wanted to receive her First Communion. I told Teenasia’s father about how well she was doing in school; in sports; in her life at home. Her father nodded, listened and then asked if we had a picture of Teenasia playing soccer. I did not, but Bill opened his wallet, took out his picture of T in her M&I pink jersey, holding a soccer ball, and gave it to her father. Then I showed Teenasia’s father her letter; told him how much it would mean to Teenasia to be baptized; to be a Christian; to receive First Communion.
            Her father nodded, then said, “Well, if it’s what she wants. Okay.” He signed the necessary forms. He looked at the photo again. I blinked back my tears.
            T’s baptism will be April 18. Her First Communion will be May 2.

            We’ll have banana cream pie for dessert.