I need to admit something. I have a little problem. A fluffy, white problem to be precise. And no, it's not the kids unstuffing the couch on a regular basis.
(That's just a minor fluffy, white distraction.)
Confession: I love marshmallows. They are so cute!! And sweet and soft and fluffy, just like me!! And my kids love marshmallows.
How do you think I get them to smile for family pictures??
Hello, everyone gets a marshmallow if you smile!!!
How do you think I get Phil to take his allergy medicine?
HELLO!!! Put it in a marshmallow!! Works for pets AND 2nd graders.
If we are having a rough day, I'll just make it rain mini marshmallows in my kitchen Lorax-style.
Yesterday morning, my Dad and I were watching Noah run around the house in a circle. Wiiiiiiith a marshmallow in his mouth. My Dad looked at me like, "Um, Jen?" Busted. I am pretty sure I missed most of parenting 101 but I do remember something on the back of the marshmallow bag about being a choking hazard. I might as well hand him a dry cleaning bag to play with and let him hang off the mini blinds while he carries that thing around in his mouth. Dad and I extracted it and went on our way, but it wasn't long until Noah got in the pantry and found himself some of THESE.
OK, OK, I am going to admit. Buying these was not my best choice. But I feel like I say "no" to my kids so many times, for so many things they want. They are the askingest pigeons in town and I am like the bus driver all. day. long.
And honestly, most of the time they aren't even asking for much and I am not able to give it to them. They don't even want to drive the bus! So I always say yes to the extra hug and kiss and when they asked for the $1.99 bag of Jumbo Marshmallows at Aldi?? Of course I said yes! Make it rain!! And there isn't even food coloring in these, ALDI, BABY! 90 calories!!?? #worthit.
Paul came into the family room last night and said, "Honey, we need to talk."
"What is it, dear?"
"Honey? Why do you keep buying marshmallows?"
"Um, I don't know." (Um, I do know. Magically delicious.)
"Do you know how many bags of marshmallows we have in the pantry?"
"I have no idea." (Actually, I sort of had an approximate idea)
"Like FIVE, Jen. Like one on every shelf. I think that's enough marshmallows. Marshmallows aren't even good for kids!" and he looked at me with that sort of sweet half-bewildered half-disappointed face you might use to talk to a puppy. "Are you buying them every week?"
"Honey, I don't even have many opinions about parenting our kids or what they eat, but this. This, I am pretty sure of. Less marshmallows."
I took some time to ponder that. I am sure a few years ago I would have said "I CAN FEED THE KIDS AS MANY MARSHMALLOWS AS I WANT, DAMMIT!!" and left it at that, but I am slowly learning that occasionally Paul has valid points that bear weight on the parenting of our children.
So, I pondered it all of the way through yoga (where I try to work on my marshmallow belly- a problem more related to four kids than actual consumption of marshmallows) until about halfway through half-boat I burst out laughing.
And couldn't stop laughing.
Until Paul could no longer do yoga either and finally relented with, "WHAT ARE YOU LAUGHING ABOUT!!??"
"Honey, you just had to have a marshmallow intervention."
"I know, Jen. It was serious."
And we were both laughing.
There are worse things that could happen. Marshmallow interventions are my new favorite thing. I am glad I took the time to listen to Paul because I think that was necessary. Five years ago, I might not have done that, I would have made up a story in my head about how Paul doesn't really understand what it's like to be me and how deep my love is for marshmallows and for our children. Also, if I hadn't gotten defensive I might have taken the marshmallow intervention very personally and started to beat myself up. I have also slowly been learning that mom guilt is not productive either.
Later that night I got on Pinterest quickly to look for something and the first post on my feed was "The Perfect Schedule for a Two Year Old." I took the bait and was immediately disappointed to find that the perfect schedule for a two year old did not include marshmallows or PBS kids or running errands. Well, crap. Should I beat myself up? But I look at my Noah. So happy, so loved.
And I decided that was great for that mama and her two year old but I would do what was great for mine. And maybe I could take a tip and throw in some more crafts when I got around to it, that looked nice.
We learn, we move forward. We know better, we do better. You take what works for you, and disregard the rest. We owe it to ourselves to be gentle. I have to be soft and fluffy with myself, just like a marshmallow. Only with (slightly) less marshmallows.
The other morning as I was throwing together lunches in the kitchen, Noah toddled up to me.
"Hey, Mommy." he said matter-of-factly, all chubby cheeks and little Santa belly and extra sweet since his mouth was full of Cocoa Puffs.
I would normally just look down and smile and go about my business, but this morning felt different. I got down on his level and sat before him even though lunches were still strewn everywhere and the clock was ticking until bus stop time. I paused, breathing in his little toddler sleep-and-cereal-and-milk scent and marveling at his long eyelashes and big brown eyes and perfect skin as he stood there before me in his Gerber footie jammies. The same ones worn by his brother before him. . .and his brother before him. . .and his brother before him. The ones that might have been a little scratchy before but are oh-so-soft and cuddly now by baby #4.
I must have stopped there in front of him on the kitchen floor for too long because after a moment he stopped shoving Cocoa Puffs in his mouth and looked at me with a puzzled expression in his big brown eyes.
"Uhhhhhhhh. . .you OK, Mommy?"
I started to snap out of my baby trance and laughed. "Yes, Noah, I'm OK. I was just thinking about how much I love you."
"Oh, OK, Mommy. Fanks," he said as he toddled back to the family room, off to finish crunching some cereal into the rug with a dump truck or whatever he was up to.
And as I went back to my lunch packing, my mind was still swirling. My life is so full of joy right now, but it's a sorrowful joy. Even in the midst of the good things in our own life, we just have to hold space for the hurting, and dear God there seems to be so much hurting in the world. I had just scrolled through my Facebook feed with tears rolling down my cheeks, in awe of our veterans and their sacrifices, humbled by the brevity of life in seeing two local young mamas lives cut so short, one by violence and one by cancer, while another Hoosier mama clings to her life in hospice so she can have more time with her babies before she goes home. Friends have lost parents recently, leaving a void in their hearts not to be filled again on this side of heaven. My heart hurts for the brokenness. Sometimes I just can't even.
But if I have a feeling like this, I am going to try to do my best to put it into some action, to honor those in pain by trying to live my life gratefully and live it well. I'm sure there's something on Pinterest to inspire me to live each day as if it is my last. Totally awesome when written in curly script over a picture of someone perched on top of a beautiful mountain, but in reality a little harder to practice. As our pastor Father Dan says, life is not all mountaintop moments. Most of it is in the valley. That is some TRUTH. I mean, if it was REALLY my last day on earth I definitely wouldn't be working. I'd also just eat whatever I wanted because WHATEVER. Fritos, dammit. I wouldn't be wasting any time clipping things on my Target Cartwheel or cleaning pee off of the walls (how does that even happen??) or scheduling my online bill pay.
Now, since I am still living, I still need to pay the bills and plan the meals and make sure there are clean clothes for church this weekend and sign the homework sheet and unload the other side of the sink where I put all of the stuff to "dry". I have to meet my work deadline and pack lunches and sweep the floor and change diapers and make sure people brush their teeth for two whole minutes. Life stuff. . .because I'm still alive, thank God, and I still have jobs to do. But I think the trick is that I can't let those daily tasks get in the way of my daily living.
I'm going to be honest, there have been times when I have snapped at my kiddos when I have been stressed about some situation at work, and I let a nasty email from someone outside my circle change the way I treated my people.
I've gone to bed before really sitting down and connecting with Paul, the love of my life, because I've just been too tired from working and cleaning and correcting and "mom"-ing.
I tend to save things for a special occasion. Oh, I won't wear that, it's too pretty to just wear around my house where people will wipe their noses on it.
I tend to think pretty far into the future. Have I already planned what I am going to wear on date night this weekend, and church and oh, yeah. . .Thanksgiving and Christmas? Of course. Have I written imaginary chapters of imaginary books in my head, songs that will never be sung, home improvement projects that will never be done? Of course. That's how I roll. I spend so much time daydreaming and planning and living in my head and mentally rearranging my furniture that sometimes I can miss out on the present moment.
Not just that, I also tend to worry too much about ridiculous things like if I don't teach my kids to chew with their mouths closed and use a Kleenex properly they will never grow up to be competent adults with happy lives and friends. Seriously, Jen. Why are you so dramatic?
But when someone dies, especially when it is someone just like us. . .a young mom, with kiddos to see grow and big dreams and plans like ours, it just makes one pause. In that moment where we begin to grieve for their family and then begin to think "how easily that could have been me." the shift occurs to the eternal perspective. When the world around us is swirling in grief and pain, it's good to know that Love is real and Heaven is waiting. And from that eternal perspective things in our daily life get a lot smaller. How easy it is in the midst of diapers and dishes and bills and homework to lose the forest for the trees, and forget that the next day is not guaranteed.
Times like these are like a mental mountaintop moment, where I look down on my living. What am I doing today to love the people closest to me? The people in my home?? Can I let them just jump on the bed and chew with their mouths open and mouth fart-sing "you're a grand old flag?"
Yes. I can do that.
The annoyance might be worth the peace and security of knowing that I love them and accept them as they are.
Can I leave the dishes in the sink for a little while longer?
The crusty food might be worth that extra hug being offered.
Can I haul myself out of bed in the middle of the night for the extra drink of water or tuck in or to look for a missing stuffed animal?
Yes. I can. If I am well enough to open my eyes at 2:30 in the morning, I can do that.
And I still have to do all of my daily tasks and pay bills and try to resist the entire bag of Fritos, but above all I have to remember that love is the most important task. Jesus didn't say "Make sure you brush your teeth for two minutes" he said, "Love your neighbor as yourself." And I can do my tasks with a smile. . .and burn the fancy candle and wear the pretty shirt while I do it. . .why not? With the thought in my mind that the task isn't the most important thing, the people in my life are. Will I do it perfectly? Of course not. No one is perfect this side of heaven. But I owe it to my family to try. To God. To myself. To those mamas who don't get to see their babies grow up. Holding them in my heart today, as I am sure you are, too.
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.
When I was in middle school, I didn't have very many "cool" clothes. I have never been to interested in being cool for one reason or another. . .I'm more on the warm side. But my mom took me to Walmart and bought me a blouse that I thought was the epitome of 1993 cool. It was blue and black plaid, with a ruffly peasant collar and a little black bow right on the front. I think you were supposed to wear it off the shoulder but I just wore it up and when I put it on I felt so pretty.
I remember my parents dropping me off at the middle school dance, and I felt like I was really rocking the shirt. I was kind of overly skinny and newly, awkwardly tall because I had just gone through a growth spurt but I had curled my bangs up and I felt like with all that effort I was totally the kind of girl that a middle school boy might ask to dance.
I was standing by a column in the basement cafeteria as the early 90's jams played, awkward and exposed in the fluorescent lights. I was chatting with a few of my girlfriends, when around the corner of the column came a trio of middle school girls, the "cool" girls if you will, looking at me with that sort of smirky classic after-school-special face that girls make when they are up to something.
"I like your shirt, Jenny." said one, in a tone that made me think that she may or may not actually like my shirt, but I thought I would just play along.
"Oh, thanks." I said, smiling a little bit and ducking my head because I thought that maybe the conversation would just end if I looked away.
"Yeah, where did you get that shirt??" chimed another, as my face started to get a little red.
"Um, well, yeah, I don't really remember." Even though I DID remember, and do remember over 20 years later, I was not about to tell the cool girls that I got my shirt at Walmart.
"So, are you supposed to wear it like this??" one said, pulling one shoulder of my shirt down as all of the girls started laughing.
"Um, I don't know, really" I said, fiddling with the shoulder and looking away.
"Well, I really like it, Jenny. Really cool." the first one said, and they moved a few feet away from me. My face burned as I saw them looking over at me, pointing and giggling with another group of kids that they had joined up with. For the rest of the night I sort of awkwardly fiddled with my shirt. I talked with my friends and pretended like I didn't care, but I really, really did. I don't even think I hit the floor to dance when our favorites came on. I just waited self consciously for the night to be over, and watched the big clock on the wall tick the minutes by until my mom would come and pick me up. When I got home I took off my beloved blouse and shoved it on the floor the back corner of my closet, never to be worn again.
Now, it's been a long time since middle school, but even typing this still makes me cringe a little bit. It wasn't the first time that someone else's criticism made me wilt like Chrysanthemum, and it wasn't the last. There were kids at camp who made fun of my freckles and made me want to wear long sleeve shirts in July. The high school boys who laughed at me singing at church and made me want to just be invisible. The guy at the bar in college who teased me about my dancing. (To my credit, it was HARD to dance in those Steve Madden slide platform wedges, OK???) Yet experiences like that shaped me into who I am today, the kind of person who appreciates differences and has a really tender heart for others. And also, despite the previous criticism, wears sleeveless shirts, still sings at church and dances in her living room. I mean, if I wasn't me, who would I be? And if we weren't all different, what fun would life be?
Last week, I bought a jaunty hat. A floppy brown hat so glorious that when I saw it on Pinterest I just new it had to be mine. It would complete every outfit I had with a joyful fall-esque flourish. LOVE. Click. Ordered. Delivered by Mike the mailman. I wore it all over town. Of course, I got lots of compliments, because who doesn't love a fall hat!!!???? And I loooooove compliments!! I compliment strangers on their clothes all of the time, if you love something why keep it inside?? But then. . .I overheard someone making fun of me. Just that little side glance, that little after-school-special-middle-school-girl-esque smirk. The whispered words just barely overhead that let me know that there was some criticism of my clothes and my hat and my style. I almost heard Boyz II Men playing. . .it was 90's cafeteria dance in the florescent lights all over again.
The difference is, now that I am older I know that nothing anyone says about me can change God's truth about who I am.
I am not my works.
I am not my job.
I am not my children.
I am not my image.
I am not even my hat.
If I live in the light of my own truth and God's, I can live peacefully in the world. Some people will hate me for the same reason that other people love me. I often come back to the expression "you can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world and there will still be someone who doesn't like peaches!" Some people scoff at me for my tender heart, or make fun of me for my openness and enthusiasm and goofball sense of humor and love of big sunglasses and turbans. Other people might equally adore those things about me. Praise and blame are all the same, as neither reflect our deepest truth.
If people don't like something about us, it is more about their own preferences, or maybe even their own insecurities, than it is about something that is wrong with our deepest selves. If someone doesn't like me because I'm an asshole, I would totally get that. Nobody likes assholes. That's on me. But, if someone doesn't like me because I smile a lot and wear jaunty hats, well, that's on them. Agree to disagree (in my best Ron Burgundy voice).
I wrote this for anyone else who shares my sensitivity to criticism, and might have been tempted to shove parts of themselves in the back of the closet, never to get them out again, trying to somehow universally acceptable to all people. I am slowly learning that might just be impossible. As much as I would like to try to be beloved by everyone I meet, it JUST might not be a realistic goal. If everyone liked the same things, the world would be a pretty boring place, too! No human being can escape criticism, not even JESUS, y'all. The true freedom comes in how we accept that criticism, considering it in the context of the source, its nature, its intent and our own personal truth. Sometimes all criticism is telling us is that someone prefers something different, or even simply that a particular person just feels a need to be critical!
So this time my face didn't burn. I lifted up my chin and cocked my floppy brown hat just right. If the Boyz II Men was playing, I would have run out onto the dance floor.
Because now I am learning:
The essential parts about me are invisible and remain unchanged.
Noah is going through a Super Why phase right now. That adorable little Woofster, those catchy songs, the sparkly letters and slow questions and lots of pausing for thought. . .who could go wrong, really? When he climbs up on the couch and says, "I watch some Super Why pweeeze, Mommy? A Woofster? A Super Readers?" who am I to say no?? PBS is like the kale chip of television. OF COURSE you can have some! Oh, did you just eat the whole bag? Oh, well! At least it's kale chips! Right? The highlight of the Super Why episode for Noah is the part in the book club where Whyatt asks everyone to say their name and put their arms in, culminating with "Super Readers, TO THE RESCUE!!" Noah screams his own name and then screams for me to come put my arm in, too, and wherever I am in the house I come running. Mommy can't miss "arms in" time, it's a recipe for toddler devastation. As I put my arm in with his yesterday, I marveled at his chubby little hand and his sweet eyelashes, his raspy little voice and that precious little round belly. I don't know if it was just the fact that it was the same denim couch, or the same jazzy music or the blonde hair or the way the Fall sun was slanting right in behind him but I started to well up with tears.
I had a clear picture of my 2 year old Daniel, five years ago, on that couch (less faded) with the blonde hair (more curly) and the raspy voice (even more raspy), begging me for arms in time during Super Why. In those days I would hear the cry of "MOMMY!! ARMS IN!!! MOMMY!!! ARMS IN TIIIIIIIIIME!!" and drag my tired booty from wherever it was in the house where I was just trying to have a hot second of peace and quiet, typically with an infant Joshy hanging asleep in the crook of one arm. A crazy-haired haired little Phil would be sitting next to D, scratching the top of his head with both hands because he was so anxious that I wouldn't make it to the couch in time for "ARMS IN!" And we would put our arms in. Even though I didn't feel like it. And I could barely move my arm out of my personal cloud of sleep deprivation. And I was sort of cursing myself for walking so far away in order to get to my spot of peace and quiet because now I had to walk back. But I remember saying to myself, "It won't be like this forever. He won't always want me to do this." So I did it.
"Super Readers- TO THE PESCUE!!" Daniel would scream with a huge grin on his angelic face.
"WESCUE, Sir. WESCUE. Not 'PESCUE',"Phil would correct him. Every. Single. Time.
And I would shake my head and half-smile, reheat my coffee for the tenth time and shuffle back to my remaining 20 minutes of peace and quiet and they would sit transfixed by the Super Readers, changing the story, solving the problem, working together with powers to read. . .wow those 20 minutes went fast!
It won't be like this forever.
And it wasn't.
This week at the bus stop, Daniel hasn't wanted to give me a kiss in front of his friends.
He watched Super Why with Noah, but didn't want to put his arm in because, "That's embarrassing, Mommy."
He is now an ACTUAL SUPER READER, and reads to himself at night. Mostly Captain Underpants.
He doesn't ask me to sing him "Sunshine on My Shoulders" to help him fall asleep, or really sing anything for that matter.
The things his friends say and do are so funny and cool that they are now our topic of conversation, not Whyatt or Wonder Red or Alphabet Pig.
My baby boy is growing.
But, the tears in my eyes weren't for him. He HAS to grow! He NEEDS to grow! And he's adorable and smart and wonderful and funny! And I didn't miss out. Although I don't remember much, I took lots of pictures and wrote some stories down. I did the "arms in" and tucked him in every night and sat on the couch through Mister Rogers marathons and took them all to the park for a whole 20 minutes before everyone got tired and we had to haul them back home and made sandwiches shaped like penguins to get them to eat their meat. I did all the things. He remembers with his heart. He was loved, and that love is a part of him now.
The tears were for me. The me I was. The me I am today just wants to go back and give five years ago Jen a hug. "Dear God, Jen, don't be so hard on yourself. Don't expect yourself to be perfect. It's OK to be tired. You haven't had a whole night of sleep in ages!! You've only been a mom for three years, you aren't supposed to have everything figured out. It's OK to let them sit there and watch Super Why. They are tired and so are you. AND THEY ARE GOING TO BE REALLY GOOD READERS!! You may actually be some sort of case study on how PBS makes kids smart someday, who knows. But it's OK. They know you love them because you smile really big when you turn on the PBS and hug them on the couch while you watch Elmo. The house is a mess, but that will get easier. Lower your standards. Ask for help. It will all get easier and then other things will get harder but you will have what you need when the time comes."
When I look back on the past few years of my life, my biggest regret is not being more gentle with myself in the times where I was struggling. I tried to hold it all together by holding myself to a standard of perfection instead of a standard of grace. If I could go back, I would make myself big signs that said, "You don't have to be perfect to be loved!" and "It's all going to be OK!" and "You are exactly where you are supposed to be!" and hang them all over my house to read, instead of looking at myself in the mirror and criticizing my messy postpartum crazy hair and smudgy mascara and squishy belly and wishing that I was doing something measurable with my days instead of doing the same dishes over and over. Perhaps five years ago me might have found current me unbelievable and totally annoying, but maybe, just maybe, I could have helped her out. I just wish that I hadn't been so hard on myself. I gave my kids a lot of joy, but I deserved some for myself.
But at least there's now. And that's why I was crying during Super Why as I put my hand on top of little Noah's. The joy of now and the joy I missed and all of the messy and beautiful days in between. And that's why I write. Since I can't go back and hug five years ago me, I can at least write for myself now. To call myself to a better way of living. To invite others to be more gentle with themselves, too.
My grandma, Darlin, was my dear friend and a wonderful woman. She loved baking, thoughtful gift-giving and note-writing, black jelly beans, her Catholic faith, and being classy. She always felt her best in nylons, heels, hairspray, big sunglasses and big earrings. I will never forget the time I slipped getting on the escalator shopping with her in L.S. Ayres and as I started to fall she managed to catch me- high heels and all- without missing a beat. She was my hero, and I felt like she was always there to catch me with her steadfast love and prayers through every phase of my young life. (But I am still scared of escalators :)
Darlin was still alive for the first several years of my motherhood. She rarely offered advice, but if she did it was always worth remembering, like "You know, Jen, sometimes babies just have to cry!" It was always humble advice, because my grandma would be the first to admit that she wasn't a perfect mom. She raised four girls in the 1950's-70's as a military wife, living all over the world. Over family dinners my aunt and mom would occasionally tease her as they told stories about the some of the conditions that they lived in growing up or the foods they ate or their general lack of supervision. As we all laughed, my grandma would say defensively, "I did the best I could with what I had!" She said it so much that it was a running family joke. If anyone criticizes you in our family, you just say "HEY! I DID THE BEST I COULD WITH WHAT I HAD!" and remember Darlin as you do.
And for me, that is the biggest lesson. Despite the big glasses and perfume and nylons, she wasn't a perfect glossy magazine parent. Who is, really? I am sure if she could have gone back there would have been some things that she did differently. She was just trying to do a good job with the resources available to her. She had a small military income, a frequently absent husband, four very young children, was often half a world away from her home in Buffalo, NY, and wasn't able to drive a car. I think it's safe to say she had some things stacked against her. But she did the best she could with what she had. . .and what more can you do?
I say this because a lot of times mommy friends and I are chatting and I hear the weight in their voice of "mommy guilt." I can't put my finger on it but I sense it is an overall fear that we share that our kids watch too much TV, don't eat enough vegetables, should be doing more crafts, love processed foods too much, are too attached to their pacifier, don't sleep through the night, are still having potty accidents, haven't learned another language or insert any other insecurity amplified by what others are doing on Pinterest and Facebook here. We can easily look around and feel like everyone else has it all together and we are messing everything up. But the truth is, you're just doing the best you can with what you have. I am, too. And so is most everyone else. We all have a different set of external and internal resources to match up with the demands of our daily lives. We each have unique gifts, talents, circumstances, people, finances and personalities that impact the way we parent and live. And NO ONE, I mean NO ONE, no matter what they blog or pin or facebook or even tell us to our face, does all of the things "right" all of the time. Whatever those things even are! I sure as hell hope doing things right means feeding your kids lots of hot dogs and cueing up the PBS with a big smile on your face, because that's how I roll. We can trust that we won't get everything "right" all of the time, but that we can get the important things right. God knows just what those important things are, and they are different for each of us. If He wants it to happen, it's gonna happen! Who can stop our God? Who can limit Him? If we give God our best, he's going to make that not only enough, he is going to make it abundant. If He can feed five thousand people with a few loaves and some fish with enough to spare, He can bless and break what we have to offer, too.
The very last thing our kiddos need is a mama who is beating herself up because she perceives that she is not giving her kids the "best". If we are giving our people our true, honest selves, we are giving them the best! You're the best!! You are the best mom for your kids, just like I am for mine, and Darlin was for hers. We're doing the best we can with what we have. You don't have to be perfect to be the best. Darlin was a living testament to that. People can and will love you just the way you are, just as we loved Darlin. . .and still do.
Happy Birthday, D.
"Society is asking so much of parents and caregivers in today's world: "Make sure your child is safe and healthy"; "Develop routines"; "Set Limits"; "Read to your child each night at bedtime"; "Help your child feel secure and loved." And all that is added to the other things we are already doing in our lives. Many adults feel that they are falling short in one, if not all, of the "assignments" of their lives. They often feel they are failures. Well, people are not failures if they are doing the best they can. If parents are managing to cover most of the important bases most of the time, they have every reason to feel good about who they are and what they're doing. Our performance doesn't have to be measured against anyone else's- just against our own abilities to cope." - Fred Rogers (from the book Many Ways to Say I Love You: Wisdom for Parents and Children from Mister Rogers)
I can always tell when Daniel gets off the bus if something is on his heart. Much like his parents, he doesn't hide his feelings super well so what you see is what you get with Sunny D. When he's not sunny you know something is up right away. Instead of his usual joyful lumbering gallop down the bus steps, he'll poke along as the last one off then sort of plow himself into my side headfirst as a half-hearted attempt at a hug. Tuesday was one of those days, and the words pretty much poured out of the floodgates after my first teeny-tiny question, "Is something wrong, buddy?"
"Oh, Mommy," he wailed. "I'm never going to get picked for Athlete of the Day! Everybody has gotten picked. EVERYBODY. And they get their name on the board and everything! And Phil got picked today! He did so good. And I try really hard but I'm not fast and I like never get as many points as everybody and everybody got the ball more than me and I just know I am never, ever going to get picked!"
Tears were pooling in his eyes as I sent Josh and Phil running ahead of us to the house. I hugged him close on the sidewalk as he continued to pour out his heart, thinking about how he had been holding this inside all day and also my own athletic ability (or lack thereof) which Daniel has definitely inherited. (Sorry, buddy!!) He makes up for it with heart, as he absolutely loves P.E. class and idolizes his teacher, and plays soccer at recess with such passion that he ends up in the nurse's office more days than not with skinned knees. But I knew that even more than the athletic side of it, Daniel really, really wants to be chosen. Plain and simple.
Poor D, as the middle child it is probably hard to feel like the chosen one. Also funny because of all of my children, Daniel was the only complete and total surprise! When I found out I was pregnant I might have dropped the test on the floor in shock. Paul's first words might have been, "Um, are you sure?" But I have always felt so deeply that Daniel was truly chosen just for our family. I felt it from the first time I held him in my arms, and I feel it over and over again every time I go in to look at him at night after he has fallen asleep, his light blonde hair curling a bit around his sweet face, a little cherub statue in Lego Star Wars jammies. There is just something so special about him, an angelic quality caked in little boy energy and clumsiness and messiness, a humor beyond his years, and a tenderness in his spirit for the "least of these" among us. If I can manage to teach him to use a Kleenex and put his clothes in the hamper and brush his teeth without just chewing on the toothbrush and staring into space, I swear this kid is going to grow up and change the world with his smile. I always tell Daniel he was my happiest surprise, the best surprise I have ever gotten in my life. Chosen just for me. No one could be better.
I took the opportunity to tell him that, too. I know how it can hurt to be the last one picked for a game, or when you aren't invited to that party that everyone is talking about, or your friend chooses to sit with someone else on the bus and you are left alone. Even as grown ups we can have those feelings! When someone doesn't friend us on social media, or there isn't room for us in the circle, or someone else gets the place of honor,wins the prize, earns the award, gets the promotion, we start to feel a little less than inside of ourselves. Why wouldn't they pick me? Aren't I good enough? It can feel like everyone has a special place besides us. The hurt feelings take over and make us start to doubt our inherent worthiness.
But then there is the truth underneath, which conveniently, I had just been reading about that afternoon. (Good timing, God.) I was so grateful to have Henri Nouwen's words on belovedness right in the front of my mind to help my little guy at that moment.
"Daniel," I said. "You know who chose you before the world even began?" Daniel looked up at me with a glimmer of recognition like, "Ohhhhh, here she goes again." But he didn't seem too annoyed so I got right down next to him and kept on going.
"Daniel, God made you just the way you are and you are JUST RIGHT. He will always choose you again and again. Even if your friends or teachers don't choose you, God chooses you. And I choose you, too."
I gave him a hug. We went inside I made him a bowl of ice cream and by the end of snack the sugar-induced wind was right back in those little sails. He pounced down the basement stairs to play Legos with Phil, Athlete of the Day sadness left at the door right next to the stinky PE shoes.
This morning I was unloading the Take Home folders (conveniently just in time to sign them) and found this.
Phil wanted Daniel to feel chosen, too.
(Insert Mommy heart explosion.)
Since I am not God and cannot bust through the ceiling of the school with a giant beam of light and be all like, "THIS IS MY BELOVED SON!! LISTEN TO HIM!!" I need to just give my boys that chosen feeling in their heart as best as I can in my own feeble human imperfect way. So when the world may not choose them, they'll know that no matter what, he's always "in" - with God AND with me. You are, too. I hope you know how chosen you are today. No matter what the world tells you- that you have to do better, feel better, perform better, earn your place. . .you are just right exactly as you are.
"When we can hear that voice, trust in it, and always remember it, especially during dark times, we can live our lives as God's blessed children and find the strength to share that blessing with others. In the Kingdom of God there is no competition or rivalry. The Son of God shares his chosenness with us. In the Kingdom of God each person is precious and unique, and each person has been given eyes to see the chosenness of others and rejoice in it. " -Henri Nouwen
Tonight was quite a night at the Zink house. When the school year begins, we move into High Intensity Parenting and it always takes me a few weeks to catch up. Or do I ever catch up? Maybe in June, right? ;) In the summer, I thrive as all of the parenting activities are spread out over the course of a leisurely day. Do a chore here, brush some teeth here, make your bed whenever. Usually if all of the "things" are done by the time I start making dinner and we've had some fun in between, I feel like we have totally rocked that day. But August-May, LOOK OUT. All parenting must be concentrated into super intense periods of time. Meteorologist Jen Zink reporting: There's a warning out for the "Getting Ready for School Tornado" M-F from 7-8:30 am, and then from 4-8 pm daily, be on the lookout for "Scattered Shitstorms."
Tonight the radar was mostly red from 5:45 pm onward. The end result was me wearing my apron for four hours straight before I finally made it to the sink to wash the spaghetti Wednesday aftermath, and the in-between was the best of times and the worst of times. THE MESS. Both literally and figuratively. But magic happened there. And that magic is the reason why I am sitting at my computer typing instead of curled up in the fetal position crying.
Sometimes I pray for things to be easy. "Let today be an easy day after school." I pray. "Why does the morning have to be like this?" I plead. But in this week of hectic, wiggly mornings and tearful yet exuberant evenings I have become aware. . .the crazy is the gift. The mess is where the magic happens. We have plenty of fun and peaceful and easy times to be sure, but the HARD parts are where we do the real work of life. I hate conflict, I avoid it at all costs. But conflict, and how we deal with it, is where we LEARN and GROW in this family. It is the biggest blessing we could have. I would love an easy morning, but an easy morning doesn't help me teach Daniel about time management. It doesn't help Phil to learn how to rise above challenges. It doesn't give me an opportunity to ask Josh for forgiveness for (gasp) HELPING HIM SET THE TABLE and give him the opportunity to extend it (update: I am half-forgiven for the table setting). It doesn't give us a huge belly laugh from Noah singing "Take it Easy" by the Eagles in the most crazy and least "easy" voice imaginable. It doesn't teach me to extend grace for spilled milk. It doesn't let me lead my family by example by admitting my own shortcomings if I oversleep or forget to run the dishwasher. Some days I would love to just hide in the kitchen and pretend to be making toast while I check my phone and the dining room explodes with little boy laughter about potty humor over their bowls of Bran Flakes and Cheerios. If I did that, though, I'd miss the chance to answer the million questions that pop up at breakfast about God and science and friendship and bullying and books and nutritional content of cereals.
By the time my kiddos get on the bus, I feel like have already taught a dozen lessons, a gift of the little obstacles of daily life. After they get off the bus at 4pm, the lessons begin anew. Someone might be crying in my arms from the moment they step into our front yard. Someone might pinch his brother, and then end up in a teary puddle explaining his feelings. Someone (ahem- his name starts with a D) might go completely boneless on the kitchen floor because of the possibility of writing out his spelling words. There's a highly volatile mix of little boy pent-up energy and I've been holding-it-all-together-exhaustion which can have my house fluctuating from joyful play to tears in the blink of an eye. In addition, meals have to be fed and cleaned, baths and showers given, teeth brushed, homework done, stories read. . .whew!! Tonight before dinner, Phil started crying because everyone was "ruining his pretend!! He was just trying to include them but they were RUINING IT!!!" Then at dinner, we were gifted with a two year old who decided not to take a nap today. He was crying so loudly about something related to his spaghetti that Phil started crying again because he "couldn't take one more second and just needed to be ALONE for a minute!" Josh was despondently poking at a meatball because spaghetti night is his least favorite, and Daniel had entered into his defense mechanism for all uncomfortable situations: clown mode Paul and I looked at each other in the same unspoken way that perhaps seasoned firefighters might as we just busted straight into that fiery mess. I prayed for wisdom. For patience for us. For a teachable moment in the whole thing.
So, as Paul gave some baths I got right into the thick of it with our oldest. It turns out Phil just isn't "feeling like himself." We talked about what that meant and what he might do about those feelings. Daniel was eavesdropping and started to chime in about his feelings, too. We talked about how Daniel was like Ferdinand the Bull in the story, with the flowers and the butterflies and all. Josh went downstairs to play, where I later found him asleep with a Lego clutched in his hand. Paul got the over-tired Noah to sleep with some Best Nest and a cup of milk, and I spent some time with my buddy Phil talking about what was going on inside that little noggin of his as he cried big giant tears and I wiped them with a Kleenex that Daniel brought us.
"Mommy, I just don't feel like me, I can't explain it." Phil said.
"Well, sweetie, I'm here. I'm here to listen."
"I feel like I just want to be by myself!!" he wailed. "I just want to go in my bed and not even brush my teeth and read a book."
"I totally understand! When I have a hard day reading one of my favorite books always really helps me. But, like, I always brush my teeth first. That's important." (seriously, kid has another cavity. gotta get that part in) ;)
"What books do you like to read, Mommy?"
"Well, one of my favorite books is called "I'm Proud of You" It's by my friend Tim. Do you know he was real life friends with Mister Rogers?"
"Really?" Phil's eyes got big and I could see that Daniel was listening intently from two beds away.
"Yes, real friends! They hung out and emailed and talked on the phone and everything!"
"Wow!" Phil said, as he waited for me to go on.
"So, Tim had a brother. His brother's name was Steve and they were really close, just like you and Daniel. But when his brother Steve was a grown-up, like your Daddy's age, he found out he had cancer. And later he died. And Tim was really sad just like you would be if you lost Daniel. But his friend Mister Rogers helped him through that sad time. And do you know what he said to him???"
"Anything mentionable is manageable. So if you can talk to Mommy about how you feel, I can help you with it, OK? You don't have to feel your feelings alone. If you tell me, I can try to help you."
So we sat together for a while, Phil and I. He totally stopped crying because once you start thinking about someone else's pain it's pretty hard to stay focused on your own. His mind was all wrapped up in Tim and Steve. He never did find the right words for his feelings, but we brushed teeth and read Stellaluna and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel and The Tub People. By halfway through the first story he started to melt right into my arms on our comfy denim couch.
"Do you feel more like yourself, honey?" I asked, as we wrapped up Mike's adventures with Mary Ann in Popperville.
"Yes, mommy. Yes I do. That helped." And I started to melt, too. His little ash blonde head all cuddled under my chin, his big eyelashes, his even bigger heart.
See where the magic was in that mess? I would have missed that. If there wouldn't have been a hot mess of tears and conflict and boogers and spaghetti and silliness, I would have missed it all. The mess conspired for that moment. It was so worth the spaghetti-crusted dishes in my sink. As much as I love the easy days, the fun days, the no-strife days, the pizza nights, the lazy walks, the playground trips. . . I need these messy times, too. The crazy school mornings, the rollercoaster evenings. . .they teach us. They mold us. They're a gift to our family, even if they are about as fun and glamorous as a savings bond that you can't cash for years and years. But the investment is being made. And for that, I'm grateful.