Faith, Family, & Focaccia

A faith and culture Mommy blog, because real life gets all mixed together like that.


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Worth: Day 28 of the April Poetry Challenge

The week has arrived. After nearly four years, an incredible European adventure, and a truly priceless opportunity to soak in my little ones’ tiny years, I am going back to work.

I am very aware that I am one of the lucky ones, not only because I had the freedom to take these years away from paid employment, but also because I am returning to an incredible opportunity that seems almost custom-made to fit my skills, interests, and family commitments. On second thought, luck is an inadequate descriptor for my career and family path. Fate seems more appropriate, or divine intervention.

I am going with divine intervention because that reminds me how much I will need continued intervention in the months to come. Of course my circumstances do not dictate any real variation in my reliance on God, but I am especially aware of the need to recognize this dependence now. My time away from the status of career taught me how much self-worth I have drawn from my work in the past. It was a relationship that I unlearned at the price of real emotional turmoil, and the perspective that work provided me is something I do not want to lose. The very wonderfulness of my new job is, for that reason, also a threat. It would be so easy to slip back into old shoes that offer the illusion of so much comfortable support.

But I want to walk a new path this time. And so, today’s poem is a prayer.


 

 

Where Does My Worth Come From

 

Three years ago I struggled with the loss

my markers of

identity and worth.

In giving up career I gave up more

than just the paycheck

and the daily grind.

I had to learn to live within my means

not in my budget

but my sense of self,

to find my value not in what I did

to earn a name

or make my voice be heard.

I had the chance to learn how, with new eyes,

to turn and look

upon to Psalmist’s mount.

“Where does my help come from? It comes from You”

who loved me, fragile,

in my mother’s womb.

It’s not the change that I can make or be

that gives me worth,

gives meaning to my life.

My value is best seen when I am clear,

transparent for

the light that burns inside.

And now a new beginning, new career:

a chance to shine,

or cover up Your light?

Lord, let me not be tempted now to strive

for worth I make,

but find my self in You.

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Breathing My Baptism: Day 27 of the April Poetry Challenge

Today Princess Imagination is being baptized. She is almost seven, more than a year younger than I was when I made the same decision. She’s quite proud of that – something she’s doing before I did it – but that’s not her motivation. She is being baptized because she loves Jesus and wants to fully participate in the family of God. As dysfunctional as I sometimes feel that family is, I am nothing but happy that she wants to formalize her membership in it. For one thing, she can only make it better. For another, the simplicity and beauty of her desire reminds me of the simplicity and beauty of a sacrament that turns plain water into a powerful, identity-changing symbol.

It’s so easy to forget. But today, I am remembering.


 

Breathing my Baptism

 

The slightest drop of your immensity

floods over me

and lifts me off my self-sure footing.

The ground on which I stood

a labor of thoughts

dissolves in swirling currents.

There is no place for kicking feet to stand

no life raft to  construct

from illusions of my self-sufficiency.

A baptism of consciousness

and I am drowned

beneath the surface of a sea of Love.

I am inside the waters now

and fear is gone,

or in the least it does not fill my lungs.

I find they are transformed to breathe anew

not cold, thin air

but Breath of Life that makes me new.

And when I rise again above the waves

I do not gasp

or gulp for what I craved before submerged.

New life, a Truth both real

and beyond words

flows through my veins like water through the world.


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See Me: Day 22 of the April Poetry Challenge

Yesterday I spent several hours cleaning my house. Scratch that. I can not really categorize my frantic activity as “cleaning” because very little dirt was actually relocated from the floors and various surfaces of my house to somewhere more hygienic (like dust rags or the trash bin). Rather I spent those several hours shuffling items (toys, books, dirty dishes, smelly socks) from the various inappropriate surfaces where they were residing (the hallway floor, the fireplace hearth, the couch, the kitchen table) to their actual abodes.

This is by no means an unusual Monday morning activity for me, but this week was a bit different because I had a partner in my tidying efforts: my mother-in-law.

Please do not infer an eye-roll or a long-suffering tone of voice into that last pronouncement.  I LOVE my mother-in-law. She is kind, and fun, and loving, and supportive, and SUCH an amazing Nanna to the kiddos. She always goes out of her way to make me and my family feel comfortable (whether in her house or ours) and makes a very intentional point about not announcing her opinions about how we run our little family unless invited to do so.

All the same…. allowing my mother-in-law to see my home in its frequently untidy state has required a journey of nearly 14 years. You see, her home is always beautiful! Colors are coordinated, and furniture is tastefully arranged, and everything has a place where it lives – and these things do not go visiting beyond the time frame of their active use for a particular purpose. It is a mark of just how much she loves us that she allows my family to disrupt this beautiful order for weeks at a time when we come to visit, strewing matchbox cars and glitter stickers across rooms and cracker crumbs across her floors.

My habit of doing the mad-cleaning-act BEFORE her arrival is so ingrained that my failure to do so last Wednesday actually caused my mother (who was just completing her own visit) noticeable anxiety. This is a significant indicator of my long-standing obsession with presenting a tidy front to my husband’s mother, because…well… I come by my rather slap-dash housekeeping style honestly. That is to say, I inherited it – by either nature, or nurture, take your pick. This is not a knock on my mother. When I was little she was doing much more important things than keeping a tidy house: things like giving an amazing home-taught education to me and my sisters, and then supporting us and putting us all through college after Dad left. Thus, the fact that the mess engulfing my home prompted even her to ask me six or seven times whether “I didn’t want to clean up a bit before (her counterpart) arrived?” is an indicator of just how badly I have always wanted to impress my beloved mother-in-law with my ability to play house.

But, I am happy to report that I am growing up.

(Or, at least, I was really sick last week and had no energy to clean, and so I am claiming this as a moral victory to make myself feel better about the smashing disintegration of my mask). Perhaps it was really not that much of a conscious decision to finally be honest about my housekeeping, but sometimes there is personal development potential even in circumstantial changes.

And so, as I cleaned today and got an outsider’s glimpse into the inadequacies of my approach to household management, I decided to embrace the growth potential of the moment. Hence, today’s poetic offering.


 

See Me

 

The thing about wanting to be seen

is that I want to look pretty.

I do not want you to see that one stubbornly yellow tooth

that is forever impervious to every tooth-whitening gel.

I do not want you to be able to guess

that is has been six months since my last professional haircut.

I do not want you to notice all the jiggly evidence

left behind on my body by the two precious passengers who started life inside me.

I just want you to see a perfect, cover-girl, air-brushed image of me.

 

The thing about wanting to be seen

is that I want to look competent.

I do not want you to know that clean clothes

sit in a heap on top of my dryer for three days.

I do not want you to see the way I struggle

to manage both my anger and my daughter’s mini-rebellions.

I do not want to admit that I have been writing and posting poetry for the last 22 days,

but I cannot actually define what makes a piece of writing a poem.

I just want you to see a skilled and confident woman, who can balance life and parenting with a flair of creative brilliance.

 

The thing about wanting to be seen

is that I want to actually look the way I am supposed to look.

I do not want to wonder if I look OK

and pass on crippling insecurities

to the little girl who watches my face in the mirror.

I do not want to shove the mess behind the closet door,

and then pretend I do not need my coat,

and shiver in the cold comfort of pride.

I do not want to hold my need for motherly authority

above my daughter’s need for actual mothering,

and my own need for help when I am floundering.

I just want to be the beautiful, competent, inspiring stranger in my poetic imaginings.

 

The thing about wanting to be seen

is that I don’t really want to be seen

until I realize that

until I let myself be seen

I will never be

real.


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Imaginative Freedom: Day 7 of the April Poetry Challenge

Apparently the Gigglemonster inherited more from me than his brown eyes and his extreme sensitivity to tickling. He is clearly also a born story-teller. He loves to hear stories; he loves to act them out; and most of all he likes to create them out of the quirky delightfulness of his own imagination.

This penchant is most frequently displayed when the current reality does not line up with his preferences. It’s not that he is a LIAR exactly, but more than he has a complicated relationship with the truth – it is just so confining and uninspiring. Much more fun to explore the realm of possibility, where history can contain any experience his little four-year-old mind can dream up, and where his sister’s ever practical correction can’t intrude with withering assertions “that never happened!”

I can’t wait to start reading the stories he will write in a few more years…


 

Oh, To Be a Ghost Grown-up

 

“When I was a ghost grown-up…”

that’s my son’s standard introduction

to imaginative tales of things

he’s never done.

Professions he has never worked (a knight, a dentist, a mythbuster),

places he has never been (the moon, a pirate ship, Erendell),

lives he has never lived (dangerous, exciting, magical),

all breathed to life with the strong force of his boundless storytelling.

 

It is a carefully selected self that bars all contradiction.

A ghost cannot be seen,

so who can witness to its absence?

A grown up – in his 4-year-old belief – suffers no limits,

there is no one to say “No” where grown-ups have a will to do.

And so, these stories too can grow without constraint,

an outlet for a mind that yearns to live each moment to the very tip of thought.

 

I’ve heard of epic battles he has fought and won,

of ten motherless children he has raised with love and care.

(each has a name, if an unusual one).

I’ve marveled at the complicated web of tangled powers and desires that his mind evokes.

I’ve ached to see frustration in each tale of loss, of failure, or of woe.

I’ve learned to listen for the dream, the cherished hope

that needs this outlet for release.

To ponder how to keep him safe

while also giving room for dreams to grow into reality.

 

And… I have wondered.

Just what would it be like to be, myself, a “ghost grown up”?

No limits to contain my mind or will,

no drudgery of trapping practicality,

no fetters of responsibility to hold me to the one life I have chosen.

But… no reality either,

to make my life the fragile, precious, messy, beautiful mix of love and boundaries,

that grows each day,

even within constraints;

and with no dreamer boy to hold – fixed to the ground – while I listen to his wondrous tales

take flight…

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The Gift of Imperfection – My Messy Beautiful

One of the wonderful blogger/authors I follow invited other bloggers to submit posts about our “messy beautiful.” It took me about 10 seconds to identify mine


I have a sharp memory of breaking into hysterical, hiccupping sobs in my Honors English class during the Spring of my Junior year in High School.

The precipitating event was the announcement of a new assignment that was not scheduled on my calendar of homework/study time/SAT prep. My hormonally-unbalanced adolescent emotions, and my sleep-deprived, Type-A mind couldn’t cope with one more stressor and I broke down. I don’t even remember what the assignment was anymore, but I remember my grade once I recovered from my anxious wailing and completed it.

I got an A.

I know this because I always got an A. It was a compulsion that wouldn’t allow me to ever do the minimum, or to live with even one substandard performance. While school was the focal point for this obsession, it controlled the rest of my life as well, trapping me in the self-consuming fire of perfectionism.

If I didn’t do everything right, if I wasn’t perfect, then I was a failure. And I couldn’t let that happen.

Not that my life was really perfect. My teen years were bracketed by my parents’ divorce at age 12, and my father’s suicide at age 19: life-shattering traumas that were completely out of my control. So, understandably, my response was to clamp down on anything I could control… and do it perfectly. That way I could know I was still good enough.

Of course, it has been a long time since I was a teenager, and my life has changed so much. My arena for performance shifted from academics, to career, but more significantly the years brought the self-awareness that perfectionism was my enemy, not my salvation. Time also brought new challenges like marriage and motherhood: utterly important efforts for which no grades are issued. It was disorienting to know the most important work I was doing with my life was not open to reassuring evaluation. My need for perfection was a source of more anxiety than reassurance.

But… tightly cherished coping mechanisms are so hard to release, especially when they mutate into new, more satisfying forms. I could accept that perfection was not a realistic goal. Being right on the other hand – that was something that could give me the security I craved. I pursued masters degrees and career opportunities that reinforced this instinct. As an anti-poverty researcher and advocate, I could stand firm on my moral high-ground and lecture those who were too ignorant or too self-involved to see the rightness of my progressive convictions.

Then came one of those explosive miracles God sometimes uses to knock down our temples built on the sand of self, and rebuild us on a much-more solid foundation.

My husband was offered a career opportunity that excited us both, and we made the decision to move to Italy for three years. Three years of beauty, and discovery, and enjoyment… and also three years to lose all the markers of achievement and forums for proclamation that I so cherished:

  • I resigned from my job – a blessed chance to soak up my children’s early years, and a terrifying loss of my non-Mommy identity.
  • I tried to learn Italian – a lifelong dream to become bilingual that was so much harder, and more painful, and more humiliating than I ever imagined.
  • I lost my connection to my knowledge base – my life contracted to the little matters of cleaning house and school plays, a life I loved that still left me feeling small.

Perhaps what rocked me most of all, however, was the change of church environment. We moved from an incredibly warm and nurturing community to a church of fire and brimstone teaching and precious few relationships. The church selection was a consequence of circumstance and language; the relationships were more our fault, since we weren’t sure we wanted to let these fundamentalist people into our lives. In the end, I did let a few in. I am so glad that I did.

Relationships were the perfect antidote to a spiritual battleground that could have torn me apart.

My controlling need to be right – in my theology, in my biblical interpretation, in my practice, in all of it! – was confronted by preaching just as convinced of a mandate to declare TRUTH without apology. It was a grating combination.

I spent nearly a year squirming in my seat each Sunday night, biting my tongue to hold back rebuttal verses and contextual arguments. It was an effort to suppress my controlling need to always prove I was right, but I didn’t actually engage in these hypothetical debates. The one time I had tried, the preacher acknowledged my right to disagree, but made it clear he wasn’t backing down from his responsibility to preach THE TRUTH.

I felt battered and abused, and sometimes wondered why we were even going to church. In a season of life when all my comfortable markers of success has been stripped away, the last thing I needed was a church that continually questioned the validity of my salvation. I needed a church that would support me and affirm me; I needed a God who had created me with gifts and intelligence, not one who demanded that I reject my mind to prove my faithfulness.

This story could have ended very badly, with a broken woman and an abusive church and the choice to either reject my faith or reject myself.

Instead, I found the miracle of imperfection. In a tiny woman’s Bible study in Basiglio, Italy, I formed relationships with women with whom I deeply disagreed … and those relationships weren’t about being perfect or right. They were about being present. We argued, certainly, and in those arguments I sometimes offered compelling arguments… and sometimes came up short. I sometimes lost the game of proof-texts, and floundered in trying to explain my disagreements. Our frame of reference was so wildly different that in the end all we could appeal to was the one thing we had in common: God.

What a gift it was to realize that my imperfection, my lack of authority and winning arguments, my need to fall back on my trust in the way God has loved and guided me so far… this was my source of security in my faith.When it wasn’t about mastering tough theology in seminary, or leading adult forum at church, or getting it all right, all I could fall back on was “because God.”

Because I know God.

Because I hear God’s voice in the quiet of my soul.

Because even when I get it wrong, I know God gets it right.

Because God made me imperfect on purpose.

Because God is what gives me value.

I have a soft memory of tears welling up from my soul and spilling out in prayer as I sat curled on my bed in my Milan apartment. God I’ve tried so hard and it’s so painful and I feel like I don’t really know anything anymore. I don’t know what to do and I don’t know how to cope and I need you!

The precipitating event was a fear that maybe the preacher was right; that maybe I’d been wrong all this time; that all my efforts to know, and to master, and to argue my understanding of faith were all efforts in the wrong direction. The insecurity was devastating and I cried out from the pain of my own uncertainty.

I remember exactly the response I received. “I made you just as you are and I want you to use your mind, and your heart, and your voice to know me and to make me known. And I want you to know you won’t always be right. Being right is not what saves you. I do that.”

So, so, so much better than always being right.


This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!


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Made-up Freedom: On Why Both I and My Daughter Need Me to Break the Chains of Beauty Ideals

At church this morning our adult sunday school was discussing various approaches to the Lenten fast (the practice of either “giving something up” or committing to some new discipline for the 40 days of Lent). I won’t rehearse the whole rich discussion here, but one particular idea struck a chord with me.

It was the story of a mother with two young daughters who gave up looking in the mirror.

I think some of our group members found this idea a bit strange as a way of preparing one’s heart for Holy Week, but I immediately knew this was a profound thing to do, as both a woman and as a mother.

First, as a woman:

One of the major implications of this decision immediately struck even the men in the group. “How would she put on her make-up?” I think all the women probably knew the answer to that question: she couldn’t. To say nothing of the likelihood of serious eye injuries from wildly waving mascara wands, there would be no point in the effort. Without a mirror, any make-up application would be virtually guaranteed to be disastrous. Better to go bare than to risk lopsided cheekbones, wobbly lip color, and the dreaded poorly blended foundation line along the jawbone. Obviously, the woman in question is going without make-up for these seven weeks.

This drew my mind to the no-make-up internet trend of the past few months. It’s a theme that suddenly started popping up in my Facebook feed around early February. First there was the cancer awareness challenge. The idea was to invite (i.e. challenge) friends to post a no-make-up selfie to their own FB wall and then make a donation to help fund cancer fighting research. Unfortunately, the donation part got a bit scrambled (I had to do a bit of research off of Facebook about the point of the whole thing to even hear about the donation element), but there were sure a lot of bare faces in the newsfeed. I supposed that even with the missed opportunity, the effort was still positive since it came with a general celebration of embracing one’s inner beauty without the façade.

Then, there was the frighteningly powerful Sacred Scared series on Momastery, which hosted 10 guest bloggers sharing, in short but compelling confessions, the deepest fears that they had to face in doing work they feel called to do. As if the stories weren’t exposing enough, they also had to post a make-up free picture of themselves. The idea was the kind of vulnerability that strips fear and self-doubt of its power and encourages us all to be real and carry on even when we are a mess. I’ll be real and admit that many of the posts had me in tears (even in awkward public places like restaurants).

Finally, I clicked on a link to a hysterical Tedx talk by Tracey Spicer, who catalogued all the crazy things women do to enhance our appearance, cited statistics on the thousands of hours this steals from our lives, and then proceeded to “strip-off” the make-up, the bouffant hair, the figure-flattering dress, and the three-inch heels to encourage a new wave of feminism that will reject society’s unfair expectations for women’s appearances.

I nodded my head, and laughed at the absurdity, and for about a day and a half I was feeling pretty proud of myself for the simple reason that I’m not addicted to make-up. I spend far less than the reported average of 27 minutes a day on personal grooming, and at least half the pictures taken of me in recent years have been make-up free since most days I never put any on. Time for a little gentle pat on the back, Serena. Wow – You’re so liberated from societal pressures! You avoid so much wasted time! You’re so much more honest about how you really look than the average Western woman

Then, I realized two things:

  1. The fact that I wear make-up only infrequently has not been an intentional moral decision, nor has it marked an effort to reject repressive social pressures. Instead, it has resulted from a combination of historical forces and competing priorities. Historically, I never developed the make-up habit because a) I like my sleep, and b) I had good enough genes (at least through my 20s) that I could get away with leaving with house with the same face I rolled out of bed with. Then, with my thirties came motherhood, and while that took care of the roll-out-of-bed-looking-decent condition it also sapped any motivation or time I might have had to suddenly introduce a beauty regime. What woman in her right mind is going to suddenly start devoting 27 minutes a day to moisturizing/exfoliating/ manicuring/straightening/applying/etc., when her sleep is suddenly cut by 30% and is coming in 2-3 hour chunks if she’s lucky, and her days offer the glamorous merry-go-round of diapers, and temper tantrums, and mealtime arbitration, and sometimes precious cuddle time reading Frog and Toad is the fort made of couch pillows and dubiously clean sheets? Sorry – the chances are that my sweater will have child-snot stains and my hair will have pudgy (and, very likely, sticky) fingers tangled in it before we leave the house, so fancy make-up all seems a bit pointless to me.
  2. I went ahead and took the Facebook selfie… and was horrified! Toward the end of the campaign, a friend challenged “all her friends” to post their all natural photo and I figured why not? It won’t be that different from all my other photos, but for that very reason there’s no reason to avoid it, right? Wrong! I thought I’d take the picture under the bathroom mirror light, since so many of these “no make-up” photos seem to be so poorly lit….I quickly realized why. By the seventh take I also realized that my eyebrows are bizarrely unbalanced (i.e. call for professional help IMMEDIATELY), that my skin is BOTH dry and shiny, that those laugh lines I’ve been glimpsing are actually deep canyons running from the edges of my nose to my jaw line, and that I REALLY CANNOT GO OUT OF THE HOUSE ONE MORE TIME WITHOUT MAKE-UP!!!!!
I really didn't want to, but here is the photo - I deleted all the no-smile ones. Couldn't handle them!

I really didn’t want to, but here is the seventh photo – I deleted all the no-smile ones. Couldn’t handle them!

In other words, my self-satisfaction is completely unearned. My blasé attitude toward make-up is not a reflection of my acceptance about how I look or my deliberate decision to reject societal expectations. It’s just a reflection of laziness and inattentiveness to just how far I have drifted from those expectations in the last 10 years or so.

Which gets to the real point behind all this clamor for exposure of make-up free selves, doesn’t it? The point is not just to get real, but to accept real. To not require BB creme perfection and thick eyelashes and sleekly styled hair as the minimum standard of beauty. To know that we do not look like the movie stars and supermodels, and that we never will, and to be OK with that. To reject the fear that we will be found deficient by society, or friends, or even ourselves. To look in the mirror and see not every little imperfection, but rather the perfect capacity to be the child of God we were created to be.

If that is really the goal, then giving up the mirror would not actually be very helpful for me, at least not at the moment. Giving up the mirror while still trapped by my desire for physical beauty would just be a way of hiding from my fears about how far I fall short. I need to deal with this demon of expectation because it is eating up my self-worth. It is obsessing about every pound of “moving weight” that I am not shedding. It is dragging down the corners of my mouth as my eyes follow the so-called laugh lines. It is pondering what wastes of time and money might help me reverse the clock. It is a dark, heavy, weight that is pulling me down. If I am going to be the woman I want to be, I desperately need to deal with my own fear of unpretty.

I also need to deal with it as a mother:

Perhaps the most poignant moment in Tracey Spicer’s Ted Talk is her recollection of a question her seven-year old daughter frequently asks her: “Why do women wear make-up, but men don’t?”

Reportedly, her daughter asks her this as she is standing watching Spicer don the required mask for televised appearances. It’s an inevitable question, because daughters watch their mothers. They watch them when they are going through their beauty regimes. They also watch them when they just frown at the reflection, or give their face a momentary lift with a finger tugging up beside the eyes. They watch and they learn that a woman’s appearance matters.

I have an amazing and beautiful daughter. She is six years old and most of the time she is blissfully unaware of how she looks and how other people react to this.

When Princess Imagination smiles, her eyes just shine.

When Princess Imagination smiles, her eyes just shine.

But, even at six, this is starting to change. She has begun to stand in front of the bathroom mirror, posing and trying out different hairstyles. She has begun to anxiously ask me for fashion advice, although she has always had a fiercely independent sense of style. A friend gave her a cheap set of make-up and she has begun experimenting with enthusiastic, if unappealing, results. She wants to make herself pretty.

What kills me about this is not just that she feels like any intervention is needed in order to be more pretty, and it is not even that she is starting to waste all those thousands of hours that American women throw away on beautifying efforts. What gets to me, what terrifies me, is the suspicion that she has already accepted the lie that being pretty is what makes her valuable.

I don’t want to be an anti-society shrew who prohibits my daughter from playing with make-up or sentences her to hair cuts at the Mommy Salon until she’s old enough to pay for them herself. I know that all the pretty-play is part of the fun of being a little girl, and I’m OK with that. Really, I am.

I just want her to know that her value has absolutely nothing to do with what she looks like. I want her to know that it is the sweetness of her soul that draws people to her and that it is her identity as God’s beloved, chosen creation that gives her all the worth she will ever need.

And I’m worried that I am teaching her that with my words only, but not by my example. Because, when I look in the mirror, I see someone who cares far too much about the image looking back at me.

I’m not entirely sure what to do about this, but I know I must do something. And I know that this something will need to last a whole lot longer than the 40 days of lent. But I have a hunch that lent might still have something to offer me in this challenge.

One of the most important realizations our group came to this morning was that “giving up” was pretty meaningless on its own. Simply removing something from our lives for the requisite 40 days is not transformative in and of itself, unless it that vacuum is replaced with something else. I have tried this before in other contexts. I have “given up” chocolate, or Facebook, or complaining, and instead committed to replacing the time I would have given to those things to prayer.

Prayer actually sounds like a pretty good place to remember the source of my worth and identity.

Lord, have mercy.

 


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Playground Comparisons

304Yesterday the kiddos and I spent the afternoon at the local park with Gra’ma and my older sister.  Considering that this is our first week back in the States after our move from Milan, the title of this post might suggest that this entry will be a reflection on the differences between US and Italian playgrounds. Although such differences certainly exist, that is not the comparison that struck me during our afternoon. Rather, it was the theme of comparison itself that presented itself to my still-slightly-jetlagged brain as I interacted with and observed my children at play.

Actually, comparing is something I just started doing without any conscious thought at all. You see, there was this middle-aged man – I assumed he was a dad – who was coaching a boy of perhaps 7 or 8 years of age through various playground obstacles and activities. I use the term “coaching” advisedly, because he was setting tasks and providing guidance in an incredibly focused and intentional manner. The first comparison that sprung to mind was an insecure parenting reflex: Wow, that dad is REALLY engaged with his son. He’s giving the boy ALL of his attention. I’m just standing here watching the kids and chatting with my sister. I’m such a lazy parent! Maybe Italian playground disengagement has rubbed off on me?! (OK – there’s a little bit of Italy playground comparisons in here).

My shame-clouded eyes couldn’t turn away from the incredible spectacle of parental involvement. The intensity of the interaction was astounding. And then, as I stared, that intensity became more alarming than awe-inspiring. “Come on! Focus! Don’t look around. Listen to me. There’s the goal, OK. Jump over that. Oh, no. That was too easy. Here, I’ll move it farther out. Now jump!” Yikes, Fellow. Don’t you think that’s a bit much?!  He’s just a kid who wants to play. Play is supposed to be fun, not boot camp!

My momentary spasm of self-doubt eased off to be replaced by a self-congratulating condemnation of this other parent’s model. Good parenting doesn’t mean that I have to be in my kids’ faces every moment at the playground telling them what to do. Just because I’m letting them entertain themselves in a self-directed way doesn’t mean I’m ignoring them. It actually means I’m giving them room to explore and to discover their own capacity. Why, just look at the Gigglemonster! He’s made a new friend and they are creating new games together on the spot. That’s awesome.

Perhaps it was some lingering misplaced need to assert my success as a parent, or perhaps it as just a natural motherly instinct to rejoice in my child’s social skill, but I pointed out the happy twosome to my sister. “He’s amazing isn’t he? Everywhere we go, he just makes friends!”

The Gigglemonster and his new buddy.

The Gigglemonster and his new buddy.

It was a harmless enough comment in most contexts, but in that particular moment it was a rookie parenting move. That is because Princess Imagination happened to be about 5 feet away, well within ear shot. I hadn’t meant it as a comparison, just a celebration of my youngest child’s friendliness, but for a big sister who is often painfully shy, it triggered an episode of reclusive self-doubt. A few minutes later I noticed the backlash of my little boast. Princess Imagination had retreated from the play structure and was standing disconsolately near me, alternately staring at her feet and glancing longingly at her brother playing with his new playmate. Oops!

OK. Maybe I’d been a bit too quick to congratulate myself for my parenting skills, but I could fix this.

Honey, are you feeling sad about something?”

(mute nod)

“Is it because your brother is playing with that little girl, instead of you?”

(another nod, this time with a sniffle)

“I’m sure they would be happy for you to play with them.”

(head tucked in with a quick negative shake. This wasn’t going so well). My sister tactfully removed herself to supervise the oblivious youngsters and I kept trying. I offered advise about what to say to gain entry to the little play group. I regaled her with stories of my own shyness in childhood and the lessons that have helped me overcome it. I called the Gigglemonster over and extracted his invitation for Princess Imagination to join in the game. I talked for at least 10 minutes, but I don’t think I elicited more than 10 words from her in response. Eventually her painful silence defeated me and I just sat with her on the soft, blue rubber ground cover and ached. The pain of watching your child struggle with the same incapacitating shyness that stained your own childhood with lonely shadows is incredibly disempowering. I wanted desperately to make it all better, but all my ideas had met with that sad, stubborn silence.

Thankfully, that silence was my daughter’s own powerful way of communicating to me, once I stopped talking and just let the silence be. In the silence I began to watch her – watch how she was coping with the situation on her own terms, rather than in comparison to her brother – and what I saw was beautiful. In her silence and isolation she had observed the few square feet of her immediate surroundings and found inspiration for a work of art.  A discarded fragment of bright green foam (perhaps from a nerf ball or similar toy) could be easily torn by her nimble little fingers. A miniature pine cone was circled by small cavities just begging to be filled. Within a few short minutes she had constructed a little found-object masterpiece of contrasting colors and textures.

Princess Imaginations playground art work

Princess Imagination’s playground art work

It was beautiful and I told her so. I also finally told her the one thing that could actually help her when she was feeling shy, and excluded, and sad: I told her why she was so special. I didn’t compare her to her social little brother. I didn’t try to give her tips to master the skills that come so easily to him. I told her that she was amazingly good at observing the world, and seeing the things that no one else notices and then seeing how to make their beauty visible to others. She’s been like that since she was a baby and it is an amazing skill that makes it so very fun to spend time with her.

I watched her smile return as she proudly displayed her artwork to Gra’ma. Then, with new confidence, she joined the game of the Gigglemonster and his new friend.

Playing together

Playing together

With the crisis resolved I began to reflect on the problem of comparisons. Namely, they almost unavoidably carry value judgments along for the ride. I couldn’t just observe the dad/coach approach as different than my own and let that be, I felt the need to evaluate myself in comparison. Was I being too passive? Was he being too aggressive? The truth is, I have no idea at all about the motives and history controlling that interaction. Maybe there was a hidden disability that lay behind the routine they were practicing. Maybe he wasn’t the boy’s father at all, but rather an actual coach working with him on a set of skills. I don’t know and I don’t need to because it doesn’t concern me. There are as many different parenting techniques as there are parents, and making comparison for the sake for assigning superiority doesn’t usually teach me much of anything. It only feeds my insecurities or my pride – neither of which need any extra indulgence.

The same applies to my children. Comparisons don’t usually offer any useful life lesson, but the value judgments behind them spur the same shame/pride cycle in them. I know I can’t protect my children from feeling any insecurity. I also can’t (and don’t want to) interfere with their development of appropriate pride in their unique abilities and personalities. BUT, it is clear that this goal is best met by emphasizing what is unique and special about each of them, and they way that they can benefit those around them by using those gifts. How they compare to others should not be the foundation for self-understanding. It is much more important that I reflect for them all the positives I see in each child on her and his own terms, without judgment of others.

With that little lesson in mind I was again feeling satisfied. After all, parenting is nothing if not an exercise in trial and error. The important thing was to learn from the errors. Well, I had learned my lesson and the kids were playing happily so all was well…..

Of course, such a moralistic ending wouldn’t be real life. The happy play lasted maybe 10 minutes before I had a crying Princess on my hands again. The game had hit a snag and she was feeling excluded again. The little playmate was called away to go home then, and the Gigglemonster ran off to play with his Auntie, but Princess Imagination’s tears wouldn’t stop. There was clearly more going on here that a disagreement about which Princess she got to be in a game that was now over. After a little judicious use of silence (I had learned something from our earlier conversation), the heart of the pain came out between sobs.

Mommy, I don’t have any friends now!”

What could I say to that deep fear and pain? I could tell her the truth that I knew she would make new friends once we settle into our house and her new school. I could remind her that she is an amazing girl, and that’s why her friends back in Italy had wanted to be her friends, something that new kids would discover too. I could briefly rehearse for her the reasons that I trust God is directing our steps, based on 36 years of personal experience. I could and did say all these things, and they helped… a little bit.

The truth is, making friends is hard for her. It just is. It wouldn’t matter if I had never uttered the word “shy” around her or never once commented in her hearing about how easily her brother makes friends. As I had told her earlier – she is an observer. It doesn’t require my thoughtless evaluations for her to recognize that she and her brother interact differently with new children, and that she usually makes friends slowly. I probably haven’t been as careful as I should to model non-judgment and non-comparison, but I can’t eliminate that from her environment entirely. And with her seeing eyes and her analytical brain she can draw her own conclusions with no help from me.

So, where does that leave my sweet, sensitive, socially insecure daughter? And where does that leave me as her mother who desperately wants to protect her from pain? The fact is that we are moving back to a home she hasn’t visited since she was 3 1/2 years old, and there are only a few friends she even remembers. She will need to make new friends, and that has not always been so easy for her. Comparisons are irrelevant. It is the difficulty itself that has to be dealt with.

So, what can I do to help her? I can encourage her with reminders of all the friendships she has made in the past. I can build her up by noticing the wonderful, unique, amazing characteristics that are evident to anyone who really pays attention. I can expect great things from her, and from the God who is guiding our steps.

And when the inevitable comparisons come, I can remind her (and myself) not to get hung up on the judgments. She is not better or worse than her brother (or any other child) because of the way she makes friends. She makes friends that way because of who she is, and that “who” is a truly amazing person.

I wouldn't change her for the world!

I wouldn’t change her for the world!