Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, "This is the way; walk in it." - Isaiah 30:21

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Living Space

So I lost myself in the living room last week.

It started with the coffee table, a nondescript brown monstrosity with which Jake inexplicably fell in love. I'm not sure, something about the scrollwork. By nightfall on Saturday it was there, taking up every last inch of space, buffeted by an ugly green couch and unusually low rocking chair, anchored by a black shag rug. I despaired. We have lived here for three years and I have never been able to get the living room quite the way I like, despite my numerous valiant attempts and hours upon hours of manual labor on Jake's part.

48 hours later, glaring at the coffee table and lamenting the Patriots' recent loss with back-to-back episodes of Glee, came the revelation: Paint. Paint fixes everything. The next night, a dark, windy one worthy of Halloween itself, I rushed to Home Depot, returning home just in time for Jake to leave for work. Soon I was surrounded by pieces of wood furniture splayed out on various sheets, awaiting their magnificent transformations. I was utterly alone and it was lovely. I turned on some music and picked up the sander. Then the power went out and Liam started screaming.

By the time painting actually occurred the following evening, I had ordered two new slipcovers for the couch and commissioned the man who actually makes the money for this stuff to repaint the living room walls, too. We put the kids to bed and worked together over glasses Shiraz (me) and Jones soda (him), Smartfood, and pretzel M&Ms. It turned into a pretty sweet little date night. Jake and I truly like to work on projects together, which is probably on my top ten list of favorite things about our relationship. Also, it makes up for our disparate tastes.

By the following weekend, I was looking with pride upon a whole new room. What an accomplishment. It felt worthy of Better Homes and Gardens, I thought. I was a domestic goddess, I thought. And then, Ohmygoodnesswhathashappenedtome, I thought. Because I don't do domesticity. I thought.

My mother spent years trying to get me to cook. My sister and I made meatloaf for dinner one night when I was 10, which went so well that she's now a vegetarian for life. When I was 14, I made chili, coolly chatting with a boy I knew while dumping in approximately ¼ cup of basil. Yes, basil. In chili. For years afterward I avoided cooking expressly because older generations had considered it woman's work, and I intended to be above all that. (You might think sucking at it would come in to play, too, but no.) In truth, I didn't get into cooking until we made friends with men who cooked, and then I decided I could do so without being subject to traditional gender roles. By then I had developed an interest in nutrition and clean eating, too, so cooking felt like a healthy lifestyle choice, not a domestic chore.

The state of the laundry in our house is perpetually pathetic. The bathrooms are cleaned only when company is expected. Dusting doesn't even cross my mind. Ever. I think that deep down, I've always kind of liked that about myself. I have generally regarded domestic chores as petty, and low on the priority list. As in, there are bigger concerns in the world, and I have no desire to be bogged down by the very, very small ones like window cleaning.

Yet there I was, exulting in my newly light and airy living room, loving this corner of our home that I had made into something nice. Wondering, who is this person? And facing a dawning realization – again – that my motivations, my expectations, and even my life decisions are influenced by so many things I would rather not see factor. I like decorating. I like cooking. Yet for years I resisted either – and the reason was so that I wouldn't be a “type”? Seriously? Yikes.

Okay, actually that revelation came several days later, and was the point at which I began to reconcile myself to loving the living room – and myself – without reservation. I can't help but feel like I'm in the midst of a significant paradigm shift which has very little to do with the living room, and with much left to be worked out. The ramifications of it all are simultaneously exciting and intimidating. Yet incredibly - dare I say it? - liberating.

To be continued . . .  

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Brainwashing and Other Responsibilities

“Religious indoctrination of children is child abuse.” Read this gem on, where else, a Facebook page yesterday. The discussion had something to do with circumcision. (Save it for another day, folks. One dogma-spewing topic at a time, K?)

Well, by golly, that offends me. Also, it's stupid. It's almost too stupid a claim to bother writing about, but what the heck, I feel like addressing it.

Personal opinion here, as one guilty of indoctrination or abuse or brainwashing or whatever synonym you prefer: It is far more damaging to raise your children with zero exposure to the spiritual than it is to raise them with a belief in a higher power. No, I will not tell my children they are nothing more than their brains and the rest of their bodies, and that this whole existence is a crap shoot. Oh, but, uh, be nice, because I guess that still kind of matters, at least until you die. Then, you know, whatever.

Pardon the sarcasm. I fully realize, and in fact greatly appreciate, that there are atheists and agnostics with a much higher view of humanity than the one described above. I count many of them among my friends. They are thoughtful individuals and not really the type for commenting with wild accusations on message boards, though. (Or if they are, I am unaware of it.)

I firmly believe, having been a child and known one or two others along the way, that children have a thriving sense of the spiritual. I also believe that as parents we have a responsibility to honor that spirituality and to respond to it, allowing them to develop it further. If I am helping my child become a thinking, caring, responsible adult in every other aspect, then ignoring their spirituality is tantamount to sending them out in the snow without pants: It's incomplete parenting.

I know enough children to believe they're innately spiritual. Soulful, if you prefer. I know enough adults to believe even more firmly that there is a right and a wrong way to teach your kids about religion. If you train up your children in a narrow way that dictates exactly what they must believe, and threaten to alienate them if they deviate from it - and then follow through when they do! - then yes, I could easily be convinced that such behavior is really bad parenting. Actually I would just say you are an asshole. I might even say that presenting religion in an overly dogmatic fashion deprives your child of the opportunity to develop their own personal relationship with God and therefore equates to spiritual abuse. I might.

I grew up in a deeply religious household. It was strict. With six kids and Bible study in the mornings, we probably qualified for our own reality show. However, what I love about my upbringing is that no questions were forbidden. Doubting God? Okay, we can talk about it. Thinking about voting Democrat? Less tolerated, but they gritted their teeth and got through those conversations too. In politics, in religion, and in everything else, I knew that my parents would always love me no matter what I chose to believe. Jake and I are raising our kids essentially the same way, and with the same emphasis (albeit less political): We will love our kids no matter what, and we tell them so. More importantly, God will love them no matter what. Our love is not contingent upon what they believe, whom they love, or what they do, and neither is God's. If it's abusive to raise our children in such a manner, with an understanding that the love of the creator of the universe is absolute and unconditional, then we're guilty. Imagine their suffering.

This morning Laney asked me, “How old is the world?” We had a long talk, and I presented my position the way I present most of the big questions: Some people believe it's young. Other people believe it's old. There is evidence for both positions, and personally, I find the evidence supporting the idea that it's old to be more compelling. That's what I believe. We can talk about it and research it as much as you want.

An hour later, Liam wanted to know if we would die when the world ends. We talked about the fact that our bodies will stop working, but our souls will live on, and go to be with Jesus if we love him and believe in him. Yep, that's some shameless hardcore indoctrination right there. I'm teaching it to my child not because I can prove it, but because I believe it and recognize that the best evidence, which I have critically evaluated, points in this direction. Could I be wrong? Quite possibly. Will he have to decide what he believes for himself as he grows? Absolutely, and I will encourage him to do so. In the meantime, I refuse to leave him floundering with nothing more than an “I don't know” or even a “here's what I think” because I can't tell him something that can be proven. Okay for the age of the world. Less okay for what happens at the moment of death. Some kid questions warrant a concrete answer, even if the details are fuzzy.

It's possible that the individual quoted above, and others who share his mindset, take the position that each one of us can believe what we want, but should let our kids decide for themselves. Or, to use the usual terminology, we shouldn't take our beliefs and shove them down our kids' throats. To which I respond, if your faith isn't worthy of sharing with those you hold dear, it must be a pretty flimsy faith. I teach my kids about faith the way I teach them about gravity: It's all theory. There's really strong supporting evidence. Therefore, I will present this idea to you as truth. Explore it all you want, and please, I pray, reach a conclusion that is personal and truthful to you. God gave you a brain, now use it to its fullest.

You still prefer the alternative, oh omniscient Facebook commenter? Okay, go ahead. Teach your kids only that which you can prove. Have fun talking about, um . . . uh . . . Oh. Right.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Goodnight, Dragon

“I'm afraid I'll wake up different tomorrow.”

He stood beside me at the dining room table, frowning. Before I could begin to guess at the context, his sister swooped in with an arguably comforting, “No no, buddy, don't worry. That just happens to dragons.”

Dragons, you see, transform when they get all the things they want, then turn nasty and greedy, and then they grow bigger and meaner. Or something.

Liam persisted. “I don't want to get different."

I joined in the reassurance. No, he would not wake up scaly or monstrous in the morning. (Well . . .) That was just dragons. I stopped before I got to the part that I really wanted to say, that he will wake up different. That every morning when he wakes up, he's different than he was the day before, and the rest of us are too. Every moment we're learning and growing and changing, each of us moving forward on our own path. It's beautiful. It's mysterious. And it makes me sad.

Jake often says he doesn't want the kids to grow up. That they're so cute now, and in a few years they won't want to cuddle, and they'll think we're embarrassing instead of awesome. But I love the idea of seeing them grow up. I can't wait to find out who they become.

At the same time, I agree with Liam. I don't want him to wake up different. This beautiful little boy, my middle child, the one I don't mention as often simply because I don't question myself with him. Unlike the other two, I just get him. He's a deep thinker and stubborn as hell and can barely control himself around ice cream. It's like he's a piece of my soul.

I dread him losing his sweetness. I'm already bracing myself for the moment he figures out superheroes are purely fictional, and for the day he no longer runs into the kitchen asking for something to help him stick himself to the walls. I wonder if there's a way to help him preserve the sense of magic, the feeling that the whole world is amazing.

When I kissed him goodnight I noticed how big his hands are growing. He is slowly, slowly moving out of little boyhood. He gave his two-year-old cousin the cuddly stuffed tiger he doesn't want anymore. He likes cars and tools and legos – even trains have become a bit passe.

I look at my family, and Jake's, and everyone else's, and the pattern seems so clear: Girls come back home. They grow up, and eventually, if you're lucky, become your friends. But boys, it seems, carve out their own separate lives. They're around. They love you still. Maybe a little less than they used to. At any rate, they need you less.

I can't help but note the contradiction here. For my girls, I'm attempting to model this mom as multi-dimensional human being idea. I want them to know there's more to me, so that they feel free to explore their own myriad roles and relationships as they grow. With my boy, it's so much less enlightened. For him, I would consider dropping all the ideals if I knew that I would just continue to be his mommy. But that would be wrong. That wouldn't be healthy. That's how Norman Bates' mother's bones wound up in a rocking chair in the basement.

So yes, I will let him go when I need to. But I hope he doesn't wake up different for a long time yet.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Mommy is a Verb

I went running because I was cranky. And because some days, let's face it, kids are just annoying.

I happened to jog by a woman holding a toddler and speaking firmly to a five-year-old. Clearly a mom, her clothes said. You know. Mom clothes.

I've always had, like, this thing about looking like a mom. A friend once told me she took out her nose ring after someone assumed she was her son's nanny. My first thought was, Isn't that a compliment? I found my old blog recently, and apparently I've been dealing with this since Laney was a newborn and I cut my hair short. After a few weeks, I cut it even shorter so that it couldn't possibly be mistaken for a "mom cut." Somehow I didn't like the idea of having my hairstyle determined by the existence of offspring. I don't know, maybe it's weird. But there it is.

In the same way, I've always bristled at the whole stretch mark quote about being a tiger and a tiger earning its stripes. No, dammit, I don't want stripes. Shut up and stop trying to make me feel better about it.

So as I jogged past this woman, I thought, What is my issue with this? Why do I dislike the idea that my clothes or some other element of my appearance reveals me as a mother? It's not like I don't want anyone to know. I'm proud of my kids. Annoying moments aside, I like being their mother.

But it isn't about them. It's about the fact that when we talk about mom jeans, or mom haircuts, or mom cars, or when we refer to someone as a soccer mom (or, for that matter, a M.I.L.F.), we are defining that person. We are oversimplifying all the pieces of their life into the generic M-O-M, like there's some specific set of characteristics that accompany the designation.

So what?

So I'm starting to think it's dangerous.

When I have "mom hair" - which I frequently do - isn't that another way of saying it's my kids' fault I look like a slob? Isn't it an opportunity for me to blame them for my sub-par appearance? They aren't responsible for pulling my hair into a ponytail nearly every morning, I am.

What if instead, we shrug our shoulders and say, Yeah, a lot of mothers have messy hair. Funny correlation there. Or hey, maybe some women have messy hair and some don't, and nobody cares. That would be even better.

Of course, it's not really about appearance. But it causes me to wonder how we see ourselves. When Rowan was born, when I came home from the hospital knowing that for the next year, at minimum, I was neither working nor in school, my thinking was, Well, now I'm just a mom. I even said it a bunch of times: "I don't have to be anybody else. Just mom."

Well, no. False. If I am created as a multi-dimensional individual who is many things to many people, if I have a set of skills that are meant to be shared with the world, then why am I going to reduce myself to only one of those roles and allow it to consume my entire identity? Isn't that kind of, you know, wrong? 

To be clear: "Mommy" is without question the most important role I have ever played, and most likely will ever play. That is, it's the most significant thing I do. But it's just a small piece of who I am. And what kind of regard are we showing for the other people in our lives, the people with whom I honestly believe that God had connected us, if we define ourselves purely as mothers? Doesn't that mean these other non-offspring people don't count for a whole lot?

So here's my project for the next few months: I am going to avoid the use of the word "mom" as an identity. Instead, I'd like to think of it as an action word: To mommy. To mother. In the same way that Christians have - rightfully, in my opinion - emphasized that love is a verb, not a feeling, I want to forget that mom can be used as a noun. I will not use it to define anyone, myself included. My kids deserve better than that, and so does everyone else I know. So do I.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

First Grade

Dear Delaney,

I have promised the school district that next week I will begin to teach you formally.
Lately, the idea of me teaching you makes me smirk. When I think about your curriculum, and when I think on a deeper level about the reasons why we choose to educate you in your own home, what I notice is not the number of things I am supposed to teach you, but the things you have taught me in six years. What I am supposed to teach you can't even compare to what I've learned.

You have taught me that weird is good. Not just okay, but GOOD. I observe others interacting with you, and I realize that every decent human being actually likes your unique way of looking at the world. The few who don't are people who would make miserable company anyway. (The woman at the park walking the mean chihuahua? Seriously, what was her problem?)

But me, I was always afraid to be weird. (A tad ironic, I know.) Your mother is the girl who would wake up every morning of fourth grade and pray that she would not have to sit at the end of the lunch table. That she would not be just loosely affiliated with the cool girls, slightly in but also slightly outcast. You? You're the girl who would sit at the end of the lunch table and invest herself in a conversation with whomever sits beside her. You don't look at potential friends and decide how they might impact your coolness factor. You don't care whether your alternative-ness is trendy or just plain out there and freaky. You just ARE. And you let the people around you in, no matter who they are, and allow them to just BE with you. If they don't know how, you show them. I suspect you don't know just how great that is, but maybe that's best.  

Right now I exercise a bit of control over your peer group. I do that because I want to keep you, while you're young, with other kids (and adults) who see the world like you do. There will be plenty of time to stand up for yourself to girls who try to break you down. There will be girls who talk behind your back and who act like they're prettier – and maybe they are, though I don't think there are many – and there are girls who will be straight up bitches. (By the way, you aren't allowed to read this letter until you're, like, 12 or so.) THEY ARE WRONG.

Some day, there will be boys who think you should act like they're awesome even if they aren't. They might even think you owe them something personal or intimate, for no good reason except that they spent money on you, or opened your car door. It's a deeply flawed logic, I know, but somehow, they don't. 

Right now, your best friend is a boy who thinks your ninja skills are fantastic. You call him your boyfriend, which bothered me at first. But I've gotten over myself. If you want your boyfriend, at six years old, to be a boy who likes you for who you are, with your chronically messy hair, clashing clothes, and slightly clumsy karate moves, go for it. That's the kind of boy I want for you, for all your life. (Although if you want to start brushing your hair a little more often, I seriously have no problem with that.)

You've taught me the natural antidote for poison ivy. You've taught me that wolves are marathoners. You've taught me a whole new way of thinking about the concept of odd and even numbers, that Big Foot legends pervade most cultures, that a mongoose trumps a cobra nearly every time.

You've taught me that my grand plans sometimes don't amount to much, because they hinge on other people and extenuating circumstances. I look at our plans laid out, day by day, for the next month, and already I know that half of them will probably be out the window by September 15th. You have taught me not only to adapt, but also that I must adapt – and that when I do, everything else takes care of itself. You have made me just a little more fluid, just a little less stubborn. (Note to your father: I said a little.)

I love your mind, Laney. It terrifies me at times, because it's complicated and intimidating and sometimes I have no idea how I, of all people, am primarily responsible for honing something so complex. But the idea of leaving it up to someone else scares me even more. I will not, maybe even cannot, entrust you to even the most excellent professionals if they do not have the opportunity to know you as a person.

I promise to do my best to mold your spirit, but I will not break it. I want everyone who works with you to see your amazing potential, and help you become the best YOU that you can be. And yes, it does take work, and it does take discipline. I am going to expect you to perform school tasks you don't want to do. You're going to get mad at me, and you won't be allowed to fly under the radar like you might in a classroom of 20 or more kids. (Or 42 kids, like a local school district is dealing with this year.) Make no mistake - the fact that you are homeschooled means, in some ways, that you will need to work harder. I am going to push you to be better every day.

And I think that's fair. Because you have pushed me to be better, to be kinder, to be braver and more patient, every day since you were born. Some days I think it will drive me crazy. Many days you exhaust me. But I am so, so much better because of you; because of your insistence on you being you. 

All this stuff that happens on the weekdays between September and June - that's just filling in the gaps. We're going to do it, and we're going to do it well. But when you graduate, when you are an adult making your own amazing life, I don't think school time is what either of us will remember. I like to think what we'll remember is the conversations yelled back and forth from opposite ends of the car. Of the games you invent with your brother and of the way you entertain your little sister. Of the way you like to mediate when your dad and I have different viewpoints on an issue. I hope you'll remember a lot of snuggles and most of all a feeling of being loved and nurtured by all the people around you - not just by your family, but by your friends and your friends' parents. There are years ahead to learn how to deal with bullies and jerks. There will be plenty of time - more than enough - to stand up for yourself, your beliefs, your ideas. But it's my job to give you a solid foundation before you need to do that.

Every day I pray that I help you become the person God made you to be. If it were left up to me, I would be sorely tempted to turn you into the kind of kid who could just make my life easier. Your questions and your outlook challenge me to the point of exhaustion, and much of the time I have no idea what I'm doing. Very often I think the fact that God put you here, with me as your mother, means that God has far more confidence in me than I have in myself. So as I try to see you the way that God made you, I try to see myself the way God sees me. Because you have taught me that deep down, we both must be pretty amazing. 

School starts Tuesday, kiddo. I'm game if you are. Here goes nothing.

Love you forever,