Reentering the atmosphere after a weekend away can feel like an exercise in crash-and-burn. Everyone is a little off his or her axis. The only thing in the fridge is a jar of pickles, that one duffel bag never manages to get all the way unpacked, and uncertain amounts of homework are due. We all start to run a little hotter than usual, but our unceremonious landing back into the daily grind is especially hard on the girls. Without giving away too many incriminating details, I will say that we had an epic meltdown of the daughter variety today, triggered by the fact that homework exists in this fallen world and will continue to be inflicted on humanity for the foreseeable future.
The sound level in our house during the meltdown was something like you’d expect at a hog stampede. After making sure that the melting child was at least safe in her room, Dan and I slumped against the doorframe and looked at each other with “OMG” eyes. You know the ones. We figured we had about three minutes before our neighbors called the cops on suspicion of manslaughter, and we were really really hoping that the other would telepathically convey the magic parenting solution that would get us out of the mess.
This did not happen. (Though neither, thankfully, did the police intervention.) What did happen is that our worked-up girl raged herself to sleep, and while she napped away the drama, I turned to my Hail Mary: a simple lined notebook in which she and I exchange letters when other forms of communication fail.
I wasn’t sure exactly what to write—how do you reason with a child on fire?—but I wanted first to help her define what was happening in her emotional core (tiredness from our trip, frustration over a difficult homework assignment) and second to encourage her to write back and help me understand her experience. I ended by making sure she knew I loved her, no matter what.
I have no prototype for this parenting strategy, just inspiration gleaned from mamas like Erika Morrison and Meredith Jacobs and the simple fact that I work through emotional turmoil more easily through writing. I realized this about myself in my teenage years when I filled journals to their paper-blade edges with hot black ink. I wish I had started the habit sooner though. I think a lot of my childhood would have been easier to understand and process had I known to write through it, to identify my emotions and their causes, to root myself in perspective.
This is what I’m trying to teach my daughters now. In my letters, I do my best to ask good questions that can act as bridges between our separate viewpoints. I prompt them to venture into the messy territory of their emotions, and I try to keep our notebooks a safe place to be honest with each other in the mad hope that we can continue through their teenage years. Sometimes, the lines on those pages are the only open lines of communication we have, but they never fail to help my girls and I understand each other better.
I know I can’t speak for all children here, and maybe not even most children, but my daughters really love this method of working through issues. We don’t always limit it to writing; sometimes we draw pictures of how we feel, and we often incorporate some silliness into our letters because that’s how we roll. Few parenting experiences are sweeter to me than hearing a notebook slipped under my door and opening it to find my daughter’s heart scrawled (or scribbled, or illustrated) on the page. Especially when we’re in a rough patch, this practice helps me feel that we’re doing okay after all—that I’m not a hopeless failure and the girls aren’t wild hogs and we haven’t completely botched our chance to build strong communication with each other in the few remaining days before teenage hormones start waging guerilla warfare on our household. (Yes, the girls come by their dramatic flair honestly.)
I’m sure that my daughters won’t always confide in me to the extent they do now. I hope, however, that this word-processing skill will stay with them for life and that these early letter exchanges of ours will help them to center themselves when the stakes get higher. I also hope that the better we get at this, the fewer OMG-eyed meltdowns we’ll have to weather. A mama can dream, right? (Write?)
Your turn! What parenting strategies have you found effective when life gets too overwhelming for your little ones? For kids with whom writing doesn’t jibe (or those who are still too young to write), what are some other ways they can learn to process their hard feelings? The idea behind this Open-Source Parenting series is to share our collective wisdom for the good of all. I’ve learned more from other parents’ stories than I have from expert advice, and I’d wager you have too, so let’s continue the conversation in the comments below or over on Facebook. I’m looking forward to hearing your take!
I had planned to work on my next installment of Open-Source Parenting this morning, but my attention keeps being pulled on a single thread away from our own small family, across the ocean, and straight to the heart of Arizona.
I’m doing my best to understand both sides of the debate being waged right now over Senate Bill 1062 (which some frustrated groups are calling the Anti-Gay Bill). I’ve read the text of the bill itself as well as arguments by intelligent and well-meaning people on both sides of the issue, and I have some thoughts of my own that I’d like to share. First, though, if you’re not familiar with what’s going on, here’s my completely non-professional, non-expert recap:
Last Thursday, Arizona Senate passed a bill that exempts individuals and organizations from “any law” (yes, you read that right) that prevents them from using their property in accordance with their religious beliefs. The text of the bill stipulates that that these convictions do not have to be “compulsory or central to a larger system of religious beliefs” (i.e. – as long as you believe it, it counts). The bill does not mention sexual orientation at all, but Arizona policymakers claim that the bill was drafted in direct response to an anti-discrimination lawsuit won—wrongfully, they believe—by a lesbian last year. Arizona’s governor, Jan Brewer, has until the 28th to veto the bill if she chooses; otherwise, it will become law.
Everyone, it seems, is in an uproar. People on one side of the debate (which isn’t cut as clearly along party lines as you might think) argue that this bill will protect religious freedom while those on the other side see the bill as taking freedom away. I’d like to believe that this law would only be used to enforce things like a venue-owner’s right to turn down a group of Satanists who want to use the facilities for their necromancy party. That sounds reasonable, right? But let’s be honest—whether or not the bill refers to homosexuality, it is setting a new precedent in the LGBT debate.
Unless the governor vetoes the bill, it will soon be legal for Arizona restaurants to turn away gay individuals (and presumably even those who seem gay, as we are dealing solely with beliefs here). Based on sexual orientation alone, someone can be blocked from entering a movie theater, a civic council meeting, even a town square. Doctors, policemen, firemen, and social workers would be within their rights to refuse service as long as a “religious belief” is motivating them. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that hate crimes could be upheld in court.
Do you see how scary this is to me, this carte blanche given to individuals to exert something as subjective and unverifiable as belief over the law?
It’s easy for my mind to jump straight to other religions, to those whose belief systems go contrary to my sense of ethics, to all the vague possibilities of horror that a practicing jihadist could wreak under the protection of SB1062. I’m only qualified to speak for one religion though—Christianity. I’m quite familiar with our Bible, with what is described in its pages as sin. I have not seen the part of the Bible that requires us to judge, shun, or otherwise discriminate against those who sin, but many Christians feel differently, and based on the Bible alone, here is a small sampling of the people on whom Arizona Christians will have the right to turn their backs:
- Anyone divorced (unless for reasons of infidelity) or remarried following a divorce
- Unwed mothers
- Couples arguing with each other
- Misbehaving kids
- Anyone with a credit card balance
- Anyone with a tattoo
- Women wearing boyfriend jeans
- Anyone out or about on a Sunday
You get the point. By claiming the Bible as their witness, Christians can justify discriminating against pretty much anyone they want to. Actually, let me rephrase that. If this law goes into effect, Christians will be legally able to justify discriminating against pretty much anyone. I make that distinction because whether or not the government says it’s okay to kick a gay couple out of your restaurant, that doesn’t mean God says it’s okay.
Those sins listed in the Bible? The ones from which we pick and choose our preferred ammunition against those different from us? They’re meant to point us inward, to direct us back to the territory of our very own hearts where we can then work together with God to address our particular brands of un-love. (It is also worth noting that there are many “sins” referenced in the Bible that are limited to the cultures and circumstances of its original audiences. No matter how literally Christians may claim to read the Bible, very few still believe that eating pork or wearing jewelry are wrong.) If you’re interested in reading more about sin and Christians’ misplaced sense of duty in the “culture wars,” I highly recommend Micah J. Murray’s post from earlier this month.
Here is my stance, based entirely on what I’ve come to believe about God and my role as a citizen of humanity: My job is love. Period. It is neither my responsibility nor my right to judge my fellow humans as less worthy than myself. (In fact, Jesus had some pretty strong words against judging.) If you believe differently than I do, if your identity or choices do not line up with my own moral code, even if you’re straight-up my enemy, my job is still to love you.
And I want to be clear about something: Saying that a discriminatory action is made “in love” does not make it so. We love each other through our actions, not our semantics, and refusing to serve someone because they burden our religious sensibilities is about as unloving a gesture as we could make no matter how we try to spin it. What’s more, I would argue that those of us who follow Jesus are especially bound to kindness through the example of his life. How easily do we forget that Jesus spent his time on Earth serving the morally reprehensible? How easily do we skip over “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone?”
My heart is heavy today for Arizona, for the states considering similar ballots, and for all the people who will end up caught in the cycles of judgment. Every time that I think the American civil rights battle is well and truly over, something like SB1062 comes along to prod it back to life, and I realize just how far we still are from treating everyone as an equal. Yes, I care that we have religious freedom, but I also care that our freedom not be at the expense or to the detriment of others. I care mostly deeply that those of us who follow the Bible not twist its message into a weapon against the very people we’re here to love.
If you don’t agree with my stance on SB1062, that’s okay. I still respect your opinion. However, I hope you’ll carefully consider that our rights and what-is-right don’t always match up… and that the freedom to judge others’ worth for ourselves and treat whomever we want like a second-class citizen might not count as freedom at all.
Now that we’re on the other side of the holidays and [nearly]never-ending head colds, we’re settling into a pretty great morning routine here at Casa de Bassett. Dan gets up first—how early, I can never bring myself to ask—and then brings me a cappuccino sometime in the 6:00 range. I spend the next hour and a half filling my soul up to the brim with reading, journaling, and music, just me in the pre-dawn lamplight. (A note: If I skip this part of my day, I feel disconnected from myself and God and basically just turn into Gozer the Gozerian until nightfall. As much as I might think I like sleeping in, nothing beats this early morning routine for making me feel human.) I then help the girls get ready for the day, and Dan walks them to school around 8:00 while I work out. After breakfast and various concessions to hygiene, we disappear into separate rooms, he to the office to run his business, me to my writing nook to tease words out of hiding, until school pickup and lunch with the girls.
My afternoons are usually spent wearing my other hats—mom, housekeeper, errand-runner, book-keeper, friend—and then Dan and I get the evenings just for us. The mornings are what I wanted to talk about though. More specifically, the 6 a.m. cappuccino part of the mornings.
Those coffees that Dan delivers, steaming hot with the perfect sprinkling of raw sugar, are what get me out of bed. No question. My sleep-drunk brain has the willpower to hold out against alarm clocks and knocking on the door, wakeful children and good intentions, principalities and powers and everything really except a delicious source of caffeine set within arm’s reach. After 10½ years of marriage, this is an established fact.
And yet… morning after morning, when my husband’s whisper and the scent of coffee tug me toward consciousness, my gratefulness is quickly superseded by guilt. The blunt truth is that I don’t feel I deserve his kindness. At 6 in the morning, I haven’t had a chance yet to make up for yesterday’s relational blunders, much less the weeks and years of marital TLC received on the house. The only strings attached to my husband’s sweet gesture are of my own invention, but I can invent some real humdingers when it comes to guilt and what-I-deserve.
In this kind of situation, the kind in which my brain translates love into liability, the Shoulds are especially eager to bolster my neurosis with their shackle-heavy logic. You should feel bad, they explain. You should be doing more to deserve a husband like yours. In fact, you should be the one bringing him coffee in bed instead of snoozing away expecting to be served. (Ever thought about trying that “helpmeet” label on for size?) You should require less sleep, less handholding, less of your husband’s valuable energy, and certainly less caffeine. No proper wife would rely on room service each morning. You should be ashamed of yourself.
And I do feel ashamed. I blush red-hot anytime my morning coffee comes up in conversation, sure that everyone is now wondering why Dan chose to marry such a lazy-ass diva slug. I indulge in a masochistic round of criticism every night when I purposefully don’t set my alarm. I’ve even tried talking Dan out of making me coffee ever again, but he’ll have none of my self-recrimination. “I do this because I love you,” he says. “End of story. Besides, do you have any idea how hard it is to make a cappuccino and bring it to the bedroom?”
“Something on par with Hercules slaying the Hydra and then rolling it Sisyphus-style up Mount Olympus while an eagle feeds on his liver?”
Unfortunately, since Dan refuses to stop coaxing me awake every morning with a mug of dark-roasted excellence, my only option is to accept his loving gesture as such. This is hard, folks. I don’t know if it has more to do with my personality or with the tit-for-tat theology of my childhood, but I cannot easily wrap my brain around the idea of gift. Instead, I keep grasping at the concept of fair, an even slate in which nothing is owed and favors are performed in equal balance.
This is so not the way of love though, and I know it. When I’m able to pull my perspective back from the limits of my own small experience, I can see that this is how the world was always meant to operate—with selfless intention, with joy in the giving, with the extravagant grace that shows fairness to be a miser by comparison. In this world, the fact that I am loved is a songbird ready to soar on a breeze or a tune at any given moment. No strings attached.
Gift is a concept I’m working to comprehend, and I may not fully grasp it this side of heaven. For better or worse, I will always have this brain to contend with, and this brain can’t easily remove “deserve” from its vocabulary. I have ample opportunities to try though; my husband and his string-free 6:00 cappuccinos are seeing to that.
Let me tell you about my friend Erika, the Life Artist. She applies soul to life the way Pollock applied paint to canvas, and the resulting swirls of color and energy keep me glued to my front-row seat. The way this lady loves her husband and her little punks and her city and her God is like nothing I’ve seen before. Her stories are a mix of the gritty and the gorgeous, and each one leaves me looking at life with new intention. (I don’t think you could look at a Jesus-following reality the same way after reading her tale of Plus One.) I am flat-out honored to be posting at her place today—a story of names and close encounters of the spiritual kind—and would love it if you followed me there to soak in a little life art for your Monday.
Out of all the insults leveled at me as a child, my name was the hardest to bear.
In its syllables, all the other taunts—“goody two-shoes,” “cover-up chicken,” “freak”—condensed into a three-pronged weapon that I sharpened with my own arsenal of self-loathing. I didn’t meet another Bethany until my teens, so for years, I imagined myself the sole embodiment of the name. I was told it meant “house of God.” I knew better though.
Bethany meant little girl, over-young, embarrassingly naïve. It meant one deserving of abuse. It meant unworthy, unlovable, the lowest common denominator in all of God’s harsh kingdom. It mocked me with an air of churchy pomp that was neither warranted nor wanted. When I heard my name spoken, no matter the context, I cringed. It felt like a prison sentence, this identity printed as bold bureaucratic fact on my birth certificate.
My middle name was even worse, a Christian buzzword that sounded oversized and ironic coming from my lips. I had been told what it meant too, and the theological implications spoke of a God who saw the worst in me, who obligated me to eternal servitude by deigning to save a wretch like me. I never said my middle name without flushing inmate-orange. I vowed never to tell it to anyone who didn’t absolutely have to know.
Our church nurtured a conviction that names are destined by God and hold powerful meaning, and I knew that going by a nickname would be counted unto me as sin. Nevertheless, as I entered my teens and began to carve a new facet of myself out of each new inch of freedom, I asked friends to call me “Beth” or “B” or “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch” if they had to. Anything other than the name-nooses in which I had been choking. Anything to forget, however temporarily, the shame and condemnation that were my birthright.
[Come on with me over to Erika's place to keep reading...]
Yesterday, I poured myself into a writing project that drained every last bit of me out through my fingertips and left me as useful as an empty waterbed. I emerged from my computer around 5 p.m. to be on active mama duty, and let me tell you—the following three and a half hours until the girls were safely tucked into bed rivaled snowboard cross for difficulty. Every “Mo-om! out of their little mouths felt like someone ramming my board just before a jump. The fact that they expected to eat dinner sent me skidding. Our bedtime routine stretched from here to Russia. It. was. hard.
This is how things go when I’m tired; everything ramps up in intensity, and a wipeout is inevitable if I don’t let myself slow down. That’s the key, isn’t it? Slowing down? It sounds so simple here in the straight lines of a paragraph, but in the glorious mess of real life, slowing down runs exactly opposite to my instincts. Here’s what goes through my head when I feel fatigue start to drag at my reflexes: Oh no, I’m running on fumes. Better SPEED UP so I can get to the end sooner!
Yeah. Have I ever told you about my other anti-survival instincts? Like how my palms start to gush sweat if I even consider the human act of dangling from a precipice? Or how my fight-or-flight reflex could more accurately be called the curl-up-in-a-ball-and-forget-everything-but-the-lyrics-to-Bohemian-Rhapsody impulse? My instincts do me few favors when it comes to winning at life.
So yesterday evening, I sped up to reach the finish line faster, and it wasn’t pretty. Sure, I got the kitchen cleaned and the laundry put away and the allergy treatments administered and the children homeworked/fed/cleaned/pajamaed/storied, but I did it with a kind of urgent clumsiness that left the girls reeling and myself too tired even to sleep. (Irony at its most insomniac.) What I’m trying to say is that no one was particularly happy with the result.
Here at the starting gate of another exhausted day (see above re: ironic lack of sleep), I’m writing this down to cement some facts into my modus operandi:
- Daily life is not a competition… unless you’re on reality TV, which I am not nor ever shall be so help me God.
- Slow is good for the soul, especially when said soul is feeling drained.
- Putting down the frantic dishrag and curling up with my daughter is a two-way grace.
- I should probably consider hiring Bear Grylls to be my personal life coach, help balance out these unfortunate instincts a bit.
On Monday mornings, I wake up slowly. I’ve always done a clumsy job shifting between weekday and weekend mindsets, and no matter how straight I aim my Sunday night intentions, I tend to wake up in a dead stall—engine cold, momentum at zero, the week’s potential out of view beyond a right turn. I’m working on showing myself grace this year, so I accept that morning pages will not get written first thing on Mondays. Neither will inspirational reading be absorbed. I will not be jumping up to hit the track, nor will I be performing sun salutations on the yoga mat I keep forgetting to acquire. The only thing I am capable of doing when I wake up on a Monday is settling back into my pillows with a cappuccino and scrolling through Instagram while I wait for the caffeine to loosen my mental gears.
Now, I love Instagram. It feels like the least needy of the social media conduits, rarely snagging at the threads of my attention with links, surveys, or political commentaries. The comment sections can get a little dicey, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone post a Willow-filtered snapshot to illustrate their outrage over the latest hot topic. By and large, Instagram inspires users to curate the beauty in their daily lives. People appreciate and preserve little moments through the act of sharing them, and others appreciate and share in return, and say what you will about our narcissistic culture or the ascent of selfies, but I love the whole construct. I do.
That said, I myself post photos sparingly. Part of the reason is that I want to avoid the habit of detaching from beautiful moments in order to crop and filter and caption them, but the other part is that I simply forget. It doesn’t occur to me to document the majority of my daily circumstances, even as I extract pearls of gratitude from them, even as I notice their unique and lovely hues. My “hey, I could Instagram this!” gene must be recessive.
I spend a kid-free Sunday afternoon wandering medieval streets, fingers woven through my husband’s in the most blissfully unFebruary sunlight, and forget to document a second of it.
I give the girls as a Valentine’s gift a packet of coiled paper streamers that they blow into a giant pile of pink insta-wig, but I forget to capture the hilarity.
I peek in on them as they sleep, my heart catching tight in my throat as it always does to see them so relaxed, so safe in their vulnerability, small elbows cradling beloved stuffed animals.
I look up from my own dregs of sleep to catch Daniel bringing in a deluxe Saturday breakfast for me. Still, after eleven years, this.
I hang wet sheets on the balcony and breathe it all in—the Mediterranean sunlight, the quiet symphony of our neighborhood, the cypresses whisking pollen into the air and teaching the world to sneeze, our Italian way of life.
I make us this day our daily pasta. I lift weights (got to burn off all that pasta somehow!). I coach the girls with their piano practice. I dial up my sister’s sweet face on Skype. I discover that if you run out of polenta and try to substitute fine-ground cornmeal, you will end up with a pot of yellow Elmer’s glue. I switch between flip-flops and winter slippers like the uprooted Texan I am. I read Romans and Gabriel García Márquez. I cheer and groan and formulate Thoughts on the Olympics. I kiss friends on both cheeks in greeting. I use the last of the midnight blue nail polish. I kick my feet up next to Daniel’s while we discuss whether we’re more in the mood for Firefly or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I water my “poor kid.” I burn the pizza.
Life pulls me straight into its kaleidoscope heart, and I ride the color from second to second, pattern to pattern, and each one is worth memorializing in some way. I forget to Instagram most of it though, and this finds me on Monday morning scrolling through proof of my friends’ beautiful weekends and wondering where mine got off to. It’s not that I think an instant of life has to be posted online to mean something—goodness no—but I still miss undocumented moments as if they were old friends moving out of state. How long until we lose contact? Until they stop coming to mind? Until I forget that they were ever in my life?
I’ve been afraid of forgetting ever since I was a 10-year-old journaling what I’d eaten for dinner and what I’d studied in school that day. Anne Frank’s diary made me wild to record every second of myself for posterity. Years later, I’d write at red lights or in empty parking lots because I couldn’t wait until I got home; I might forget too much.
And I do. I forget too much. Daniel will try to reminisce with me about our early years together, and I’ll ask, “That happened?” I can watch the same movie twelve times and be surprised twelve times by the ending. The fingers of my mind hold memory loosely, as casually as if it were a handful of gravel, and pebble-sized bits of my life slip through before I remember that I could be documenting them.
An ongoing lesson in my life, however, is how to let go. I’ve written about it here before, how I struggle with letting good things come to an end even if they no longer have a place in my world, but I’m getting better at it. I’m learning to sink back against my trust that if a tree falls in an empty forest, it still makes a sound, and if a swath of delight cuts through my day undocumented, it still serves its purpose. Sometimes living in the moment means grasping it with both hands, a smartphone, and an armada of hashtags… and sometimes it means quietly enjoying it and then releasing it into the care of the universe. Both ways are valid. Both celebrate the beauty. (Repeat to self daily, twice on Mondays.) And it’s possible that forgetting to Instagram might just be the most Zen choice I [n]ever make.
Several years ago, I was introduced to the luminous Rachelle Mee-Chapman through her post about morning soul-care time with her little girls (who are both lovely full-grown teenagers now, which, how??). I never adopted the practice for myself—due mostly to the fact that I am soulless zombie first thing in the a.m.—but Rachelle’s creative, conversation-driven approach to her children’s spirituality stuck with me. I had the privilege to host her at our home a couple of years later, and watching her interact with my girls was one of my favorite things about her visit. Her parenting strategies and perspectives were straight-up gifts for me.
I was thinking over it this morning—how my mothering has been shaped over the years by others’ mama-wisdom. I used to lament that babies didn’t come with instruction manuals even as I read What to Expect the First Year, which is about as comprehensive a baby instruction manual as you can get. I didn’t just want to know what to expect though… or even what the experts recommended I do in any given situation; I wanted to know the how and the why. I wanted the kind of perspective that comes from experience, the kind that’s transmitted through stories rather than bullet points.
I’m so grateful for friends like Rachelle who have provided that for me through the early years of child-raising, and I’d like to pay it forward now by sharing a series of my own intentional parenting practices. Maybe you’ll be able to relate to some of them and maybe not, but I believe in open-source wisdom, and I’d love to hear your take in the comments or on Facebook. (Even if you’re not a parent, you were once a kid yourself; I’d still love to have your voice in the conversation!) Shall we get started?
My girls spend a solid eight hours a day in each other’s company, plus more on weekends. They go to the same school, share many of the same friends (and sometimes clothes!), and are each other’s most constant playmate. In a lot of ways, this is a beautiful experience for them. Growing up in a conga line of brothers, I often wished for a sister close in age so that I could have exactly the kind of glitter-coated rapport that my girls have with each other.
Spending so much time together, however, provides ample opportunity for them to step on each other’s toes… sometimes literally. One sister pushes the other’s buttons or breaks one of her toys or says something insulting or accidentally-on-purpose bumps into her with her fist, and we have A Situation on our hands. Ideally, the girls would work it out with each other, but they’re currently eight and six, and we’re still working on the whole independent problem-solving thing. Their first recourse is almost always one single word, spoken at the same decibel level and in much the same tone as a displeased chimpanzee: “MOOOMMMMMM!”
I start by trying to tone down the emotional energy in the room so that they can hear beyond their own indignation, and once I’ve gotten the facts of the case, I tell the offending party[ies] the same thing I always tell them, whether the hurt has been emotional or physical, intentional or not: “You need to make it right.”
I’m not sure exactly when this phrase entered our family. I didn’t grow up with it, and when the girls were much younger, I’d instruct them to say they were sorry if they’d hurt someone. It was such a simple thing to ask of them. It didn’t sit quite right with me though. For one thing, kids often hurt or offend each other without meaning to; asking them to feel sorry for an innocent mistake is inviting protest and might result in more bruised feelings. Second, what about a genuine grievance for which the perpetrator doesn’t feel remorse? I don’t see a grumbled “sorry” as capable of righting any wrongs. (My friend Allison has an excellent post about that here.)
At some point, “make it right” became part of our family vocabulary, and it’s turned out to be our go-to template for solving the girls’ skirmishes. Depending on the situation, making it right could mean anything from offering a hug to procuring a Band-Aid to replacing a broken toy. We usually put the impetus on the girls to figure out what would fix the situation; Daniel and I want them to be cultivating this skill now in the safe space of our home so that they can rely on it throughout life when the stakes might be higher than their little sister’s indignation. And yes, nine times out of ten, the problem is mended with a quick apology… but we don’t insist on remorse. We do insist on thoughtful reconciliation.
“Make it right” applies to us parents too, but that’s a post for another day. What are your thoughts? How do you help your kiddos (or others’) handle their inevitable clashes? Are you for more parental direction or less when troubleshooting hurt feelings? Is there a strategy that absolutely hasn’t worked for you? Let’s have a conversation!
…And so it starts.
One of the girls began crying out of the blue yesterday about a word a playmate had used to describe her months earlier (unbeknownst to us). It was an F-word. THE F-word, the one I had been dreading having to redefine for my innocent children’s ears:
Instinct rocketed an immediate protest to my lips—“You’re not fat!”—but I blocked it at the last minute. I’ve read so many wonderful articles and stories over the years about how to discuss body image with our daughters that I know better than to pick my fight with the word itself. “Fat” and “thin” can be such arbitrary descriptors, especially in a girl’s own mind. What’s more, they don’t even come close to covering the nuances of appearance, of stature, shape, skin, smile. They speak nothing of beauty, though of course we tend to associate one with beauty and one with its opposite. They’re subjective and emotionally loaded, and the last thing I want to teach my wounded little girl is to go through life relying on others to affirm her skinniness.
So I wracked my brain for tips on how to proceed in this conversation without crushing any eggshells underfoot, and I prayed a quick “Help!” and I started into every right thing I knew how to say. I told her that health matters far more than size. I talked about how each girl is born with a unique shape. I showed her this stunning photo of diverse Olympic athletes. I listed amazing things that her body is able to do. I read her passages from The Care And Keeping Of You. I assured her that she was utterly beautiful. And after a solid hour of this, we had gotten exactly… nowhere.
Someone had told her she was fat, and that one word had more weight than all of my words put together.
Finally, in desperation, I lifted my shirt to show her my stomach. This was not easy for me to do. My girls have seen my stomach plenty of times before, and we have been getting the European locker room experience for six and a half years now, but none of those times was I putting my deliciously squishable middle on display for someone to scrutinize. Besides, I haven’t worked out consistently since the marathon in October. AND CHRISTMAS HAPPENED. I was absolutely not ready for my midriff close-up.
I also had no idea what to say once I had my shirt raised. What was I even trying to convey with this? That my daughter should feel better because her stomach isn’t as big as mine? Or that the way to deal with insecurity is to become an exhibitionist? Gah, and again I say gah. I felt like an idiot and quickly put my shirt down… only to see that my girl had lifted hers and was examining her own lovely tummy with delight. When she went to bed a few minutes later, her feelings were still hurt, but she no longer seemed to be taking the F-word to heart.
Once again, I’m amazed by the power of vulnerability to heal. The stories and songs and works of art that have touched my life the most over the years have always been the ones that cost their creators dearly—the tender, raw, unpolished truth of themselves that they were brave enough to share. I’m forever grateful to authors like Maya Angelou (the first memoirist I ever read) and Glennon Melton (the most recent) for daring to hold their experiences up to the light, inviting us to look and touch and brim over with Me too!s. Artists like Frida Kahlo, songwriters like Fiona Apple, friends who whisper their hearts out over kitchen tables or email servers… their bravery makes me brave. It never fails.
In light of that, I can understand why a minute of pretending I was Gwen Stefani worked when an hour of impersonal truth-reciting didn’t. My girl needed to see a little of my skin to help her look kindly at hers, not in comparison but in recognition. I’m not sure exactly what she saw in my cookie-sculpted abs (do I want to know??), but helping her make peace with herself was well worth my momentary discomfort.
(Annnnnd as of today, I’m back to working out! You never know when the F-word will rear its fire-breathing head again, and a mama wants to be prepared.)
I went through high school in a sort of homeschool/private school hybrid where I would go to certified teachers’ houses to take courses with a handful of other students and then continue my coursework during the week at home. This setup allowed me to get a solid academic education while still sheltering me from the much-feared religious and pop culture educations I might have gotten at public school. At least, sheltering was the idea. I still learned the Salt ‘N’ Pepa lyrics, and my theological doubts only chafed more the longer they were constrained, but I kept it all in a sound-proof vault as if my authority figures were the ones needing sheltering from all that I knew. However, the academic side was everything I could have asked for. Between Shakespeare and AP English, I established my permanent love affair with this language of ours, and I learned more in my ninth grade biology class than in three semesters of science electives once I went to university.
Recent events have stirred up a memory from that ninth grade biology class, and I wanted you to know about my educational construct at the time—strong value on academics, strong fear of secular influence—so that you can understand the weight of our final assignment for the year. Our biology teacher, a pragmatic woman with a twinkling sense of humor, decided not to teach the unit on earth’s origin directly. Instead, she had us pick teams and spend our home study time preparing a debate on evolution versus creationism.
I, being a ridiculously earnest pupil who hadn’t yet developed a sense of humor, picked creationism. Obviously. I’d already read Ken Ham’s “The Lie” about how families were being destroyed by false scientific theories, and it was perfectly evident to me that Darwin’s followers were sponsored by Satan himself. If you believed in evolution, you were against the Bible—God’s encyclopedia—which meant you were against truth. I’d been to Carl Baugh’s Creation Evidence Museum and seen a human footprint alongside a dinosaur one. I’d freaking memorized Genesis 1. Armed with so much truth and the absolute assurance that God was on my side, I looked forward to crushing the “evolutionists” in our class debate.
And here’s what happened: The evolutionist side (made up of homeschooled teens, remember, who were probably loving this chance to play devil’s advocate) pulverized us. They presented scientific facts that left us creationists flipping through our notebooks, “ummm”ing in panic until we had to admit that we had absolutely no rebuttal. How do you argue against photographic proof of genetic variation using the Bible? Where are the verses that debunk carbon dating? Why wouldn’t the other side just accept the biblical account of God’s six-day creating spree? It was bad.
And all the while, a quiet smile grew on the corner of our teacher’s mouth. I didn’t think much of it then; I took it for granted that she, as a Christian, would be a young earth creationist. In retrospect, however, I suspect that she was brilliantly directing us to discover what she wasn’t free to say out loud in our circle. She never did summarize her stance on the creation vs. evolution debate. She simply smiled, and that smile stands out to me today as the first glimpse I ever had of someone at peace with both God and science.
I’ve had the privilege of knowing many other Jesus-loving scientists in the years since, and it no longer seems the least bit strange to me that someone can think deeply and believe deeply without the one contradicting the other. True, if you’re going to accept that God created life millions of years ago by means of biological evolution, then you have to read the Bible differently—not as an encyclopedia but as a literary compilation full of allegory and poetry and various writers’ experiences. I don’t see this is as necessitating a crisis of faith however.
I remember one afternoon at a fundamentalist apologetics camp in my teens, the speaker pretended to be a theistic evolutionist arriving at the pearly gates of heaven. “Well gee, God!” he blustered in a hillbilly accent, “When you said ‘day,’ I thought you meant four billion years!” God was having none of it. Straight to hell went the hillbilly who had dared to read Genesis 1 figuratively. And there, caught up in the theatricality of the moment, were hundreds of kids absorbing the message that our God would condemn us if we believed the wrong brand of science.
(Which appears exactly nowhere in the Bible, just for the record.)
That moment still makes me heartsick… for all the kids who have been terrified out of [using] their minds, for all the bright thinkers who have been convinced that faith is incompatible with fact, for a love-starved world that sees Christians get publicly bent out of shape over issues more appropriate to a lab than to a Bible study. I have to ask—Is it worth it? Is dogmatizing one interpretation of a Bible story worth driving a wedge between others and God?
I am more grateful than ever for my ninth grade biology teacher who chose not to attack our beliefs but instead guided us into challenging them ourselves. That experience helped loosen the tight, terrified fists clenched around my mind, letting it slowly expand toward a view of reality in which soul-truth and science-truth can be a two-part answer to the same question.
I’d like to hope that by the time my girls are grown, science vs. God will no longer be a source of strife. However, considering that Bill Nye this week earned himself the same label applied to Galileo by Christians four centuries ago (rhymes with “shmeretic”), I’m not sure we’re any closer to unity on the issue. What I can do, however, is try to raise my girls with active minds and open hearts to the world around them—both the spiritual world and the natural one—and trust that the God I know will be watching them research and question and make mistakes and learn with a smile ever growing on the corner of his mouth.
This morning, I signed Sophie out of school for a doctor’s appointment. I’d completely forgotten about it (see Instagram), so we were nearly two hours late, but I’m choosing to dwell on the principle of Better Late Than Never and to thank my stars that Italians aren’t particularly hung up on punctuality anyway. While signing the school release statement, I caught myself wondering for the zillionth time if I’m really qualified to be doing this. Being the grown-up, I mean. I’ve had nine years now to get used to the idea of being a parent, but the range of parenting tasks I feel well and truly qualified to do starts with breastfeeding and ends with changing diapers. Infants are and always have been my homies. But what do I know about raising KIDS? About homework help and birthday parties and PTA meetings? About big-kid insecurities and big-kid friendships and—Lord O’Mercy—big-kid hormones? What in the world do I know about ushering these small humans through the mysterious and noisy process of becoming themselves?
Right now, I’m cobbling together these sentences next to the piano bench while Natalie practices, and it seems unfathomable to me that I’m the one here offering corrections and compliments, promising her that one day she’ll appreciate having had a musical education. Who is this person in my head generating parent-y clichés, and what has she done with the real me, the eleven-year-old me who just knows she’s going to be stuck practicing scales and arpeggios forever?
These are the easiest and the hardest days of parenting, all at once. My girls are becoming delightfully independent; my friends with toddlers almost cry when they hear that Natalie and Sophie get themselves ready for school in the mornings down to their breakfasts. On the other hand, I almost cry when it’s time for their showers or their piano practice or their chores because teaching them independence in these things requires exactly fifty million times more effort than just doing them myself. They need me far less of the day than they did as babies, but they need far more of me now. They need more of my focus and my creativity and my present, intentional self. They look to me to troubleshoot emotional tangles and answer complicated questions, and my goodness. Never do I feel less like a grown-up than when I’m being looked up to as one.
Fortunately, the girls haven’t figured this out yet. They think I’m the real deal, even when I forget doctor’s appointments or burn the pizza or quake in my boots at the timbre of their curiosity. They’re perfectly okay accepting me as the grown-up in our relationship, and when it comes down to it, theirs is the only qualification I really need.
Still though… I might want to work on that maturity thing. Word has it, it can be helpful when one is trying to pass for a real live adult.