Faith, Family, & Focaccia

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


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As hard as it should ever be

A few nights ago the Gigglemonster was having a rough time with the whole sleeping-when-the-lights-are-off thing. I can’t really blame him. He was dealing with a perfect storm of sleep-impairing factors:

  • first day of Kindergarten anxiety
  • nightmares
  • growing pains (I remember them from the teen years – they made me cry)
  • the knowledge that our house was missing that necessary element: Daddy (gone on a business trip)

Given all that, my little not-quite-six year old just couldn’t seem to settle, or stay asleep once he did. I was called into his room again and again, a call made difficult by Mommy’s own sleep-impairing reality of a looming deadline on a major grant application. Needless to say, it was a hard night for both of us.

At around 2:00am, when I had finally shut down my computer and dragged myself to bed only to be wakened by child cries, we were curled together on his bed as I tried to soothe him. He was beyond exhausted, but that made it all the harder to calm down and fall back to sleep. His legs hurt, and he was overwrought, and he just couldn’t take it anymore.

With his sweet little faced scrunched up against the ALL of it, he half-cried his hopeless protest.

“I’m just having a really HARD night, Mommy.”

As I cuddled him closer and told him I understood, I knew that this was true.

I also knew that there were so many little ones that night whose “hard” was unimaginably worse than the “hard” my little boy was fighting. The image of little Aylan Kurdi, and the knowledge of all the millions fleeing the terror that ultimately took his life, has been draining my soul all week. Lying on a soft bed, in a safe house, with all our physical needs met and no fear that they will ever be threatened, I was rocked by the recognition that even here “hard” can be too much. Hard can overwhelm, and leave a loving mother feeling helpless to give my child what he needs and desperately asks me for.

What must it be for a mother to not be able to even give her child safety? What must it be to not even have a bed in which to cuddle your terrified son? 

Reflecting on these contrast I felt grateful for all that we have, but more I was devastated for those who don’t have safety. Comparisons like this can too easily become a sanctimonious sermon about looking at what one has instead of what one lacks, but that take feels very selfish to me. Feeling grateful for what I have is wholly and utterly inadequate when facing the refugee crisis. The comparison that struck me while I comforted my son wasn’t about me. It was about all those who can’t comfort their children because the “hard” they are dealing with is just too hard.

For a five year old, missing his Daddy, and dealing with the first day of school, and waking up with nightmares and growing pains… all that is genuinely hard. And it’s as hard as it should ever be for little boys and girls. As hard as it should ever be. 

If you haven’t done so yet, please join me in doing what you can to help. Links for a few reputable organizations providing direct aid to the crisis are below. It’s can’t fix everything, but it will help parents who don’t have what they need to comfort there children tonight.

World Relief Disaster Response

Lutheran World Relief 

World Vision Syria Crisis Appeal

Ox Fam is also working to generate support for refugee resettlement. You can join that effort here

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Mother to a Butterfly

butterfly smileI actually wrote this poem a few months ago. That particular night, however,  I did not have the emotional energy to post it, and since then the Princess and I have been sailing pretty smooth waters, so it has felt less relevant.

Today, however, it feels very authentic. It’s not that her behavior was so very unreasonable. She was justifiably frustrated about Mommy and Daddy working through virtually the entire snow day, while she and her brother had to entertain themselves. (By the way, I have discovered the downside of having a job that let’s me work from home).

Then at the end of this long, somewhat boring day, after Mommy had finally shut down her computer, Princess Imagination didn’t get to do her “show” at the exact moment she wanted to and she lost it. She’s seven. I understand.

I understand how she felt, and I also understand that sometimes my understanding doesn’t help. Sometimes she doesn’t need me to tell her that I understand. Sometimes she needs me to tell her that she is making poor decisions. Sometimes she needs my patience to sit and wait for her to work it through herself. And sometimes waiting for her to get over her fit of temper is so…damned…hard.


Mother to a butterfly

 

This smooth, hard floor is scraping at my patience

exposing an apparently raw nerve,

the urge to Just…Get…On with this damned metamorphosis.

This silent sitting nearly breaks my will

not hers, as I suppose I’m hoping for.

Resentment at this stasis brings distressing will to break.

But, staring at that fragile, frame curved in

around her anger, pain, thoughts I can’t read

I know cocoons must open from inside, I can’t break in.

And so I wait, exhaling stuttering prayers,

an incoherent hope that I won’t fail,

that love can still me long enough to give her time to grow.

Because, whatever started this display,

I know that what she needs is not my words,

but presence, that can prove I love her – butterfly or worm.

And then, soft miracle for both our hearts,

two quiet words, “I’m sorry” as she moves,

bright wings, unfurled now, curving around me; I get to see my butterfly reborn.


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Lessons in leaves

Autumn is a time for messes. Leaves fall from trees and make messes of lawns. Return to school rearranges schedules and makes messes out of lingering, lazy summer habits. Shifting weather demands widely divergent clothing from one day to the next, making messes of tiny closets forced to fit to two season’s worth of clothes.

And, I suppose, these shifts also tend to make messes in my mind. Much as I tend to live in the future – always planning for what comes next – the actual experience of the shift tends to overwhelm me and disturb me with the reminder that I really have very little control over much of anything.

Today I experienced one such reminder, and also an antidote, at least of sorts.

I spent 90-odd minutes of the afternoon watching a heartbreaking film, with my darling 7-year-old Princess Imagination cuddled beside me. The film was American Winter, and I was watching it because I am a panelist for a screening event tomorrow afternoon and I needed to know its content in order to prepare something intelligent to say about it. The film shares the devastating stories of 8 families who were basically flattened by the Great Recession. They were families experiencing homelessness and hunger, unemployment and foreclosure. They faced moments and months of stress, anxiety, and despair, and while the film also reported some glimmers of hope, there was not a nice, neat happy ending for most of them.

These are stories I have heard too many times, and stories that are in one sense my stock in trade – the reasons I go to work each day as well as the way in which I argue and plead for economic justice. But watching them with my sweet daughter at my side was something new. She kept asking questions – questions that made me stop my analytical assessment of how to frame my response and actually engage the pain spilled out across my screen. Her most frequent question was why, and the aching quaver in her voice spoke both of her innocence and of the innocence I’ve lost.

I was shaken by her horror that such things actually happen to people. That parents skip meals so that their children can eat. That children feel responsible for making sure their mom packs herself a lunch. That widows and their sons have to sleep on cots in shelters, and that families live for a month with no water and no electricity. I was shaken because these things truly are horrible, and once I get past my defense mechanisms as a professional advocate, I still don’t know how to deal with it.

I’ve committed my career to fighting poverty and I work hard at it. I can rattle off my economic arguments against trickle-down theories and list 5, or 10, or 15 policy changes that would make a practical difference for families trapped by poverty. But I don’t know what to do when my daughter’s eyes fill with tears about the pain of strangers. And when her soft, shaken voice whispers into my shoulder her confession that “I’m glad we don’t have to live like that,” my heart must honestly respond “me too.”

And so, my mind and my heart were a bit of a mess this afternoon, when the kids asked permission to go outside after the film. We took our big bucket of chalk out to our ample driveway to draw pictures and little messages of love. Then the mess of leaves strewn across our yard challenged an attack. So, we took up rakes and sallied forth to do battle. We conquered one small corner, and then conceded some of the hard-fought ground to celebratory pile-jumping and complicated maneuvers involving the red wagon as a transport device ill-equipped to move children and leaves in the same load.

It was a simple, silly afternoon and I was poignantly aware of just how fortunate we are to have that chance.

AND – I watched the light dance in my daughter’s eyes more delicately than the leaves she was throwing into the air, and that light lifted the cloud from my own heart.

The mess isn’t gone. My heart is touched anew with the pain that drew me to this work. I’m chafing at my own inability to bring order to an economic system that is leaving millions behind. And yet – the falling leaves call for play. And my guilt won’t help the families who have lost their own lawns. And sometimes, the best thing we can do with a mess is let the children play in it – knowing that, at least, I am teaching them to want enough for everyone.


 

To rediscover joy in curled brown leaves,

To squeal with giggles just to watch them fly

To live a moment wholly free from griefs

Despite a world that tells my heart to cry

 

To rake up leaves then scatter them again

To watch sun set and know we’ll still have light

To feel the stab of joy that’s taught by pain

This blessing and this weight I feel tonight.

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Poetic Purge for a Pensive Parent

Sometimes the hard of parenting is nevertheless gratifying, because you know that the effort you are investing in your children will eventually pay off. You are shaping their character. Giving them self-confidence, or empathy, or the ability to understand and respect boundaries. It is not the stuff that goes into hallmark commercials, but it is worth all of the lost sleep and grocery store temper tantrums. You are helping your children to grow.

The last few nights have NOT been that kind of hard. They have been more the “what the %@&$ am I doing wrong? My children are selfish little monsters. Why must they treat me like a prize to be won by any means necessary?” kind of hard.

The rational side of me knows that this is not the full picture. My perceptions are warped by sleep deprivation and back pain and an overdose of that delirium-inducing cocktail made from equal parts whining and sibling squabbles. Things are not nearly as bad as I feel.

The rational side of me also knows, however, that every other parent out there with more than one child has had nights like this. And so, I offer my poetic purge of all the frustration as a form of public service.

Sister…Brother… we have all been there. You are not alone.


What kind of love…

 

I do not want to be loved like a commodity,

whose apparent scarcity invokes incessant bidding,

where market share is based on skill at whining,

and wins are computed by monopolizing bedtime attention.

I do not want to be loved like a shrinking pie,

trying to divide myself in equal shares,

while they squabble over crumbling capacity,

and I disappear into the vacuum of bottomless appetite.

I do not want to be loved like a soap opera,

where manipulation and deceit are central characters,

twin ploys to force compliance to demands,

and happy-ever-after only lasts until the next frustrated longing breaks all promises.

I do not want my children to see themselves as greedy consumers of my love.

And yet, I have to wonder…

Have I taught them to love this way?

to see love as a game that must be won through someone else’s loss?

to see love as a limited supply for which they must compete?

to see love as a selfish gratification for their desires?

And if I have…

How can I change that lesson?

And teach them now, instead, to see Love

as the Source

and self-giving purpose

of their lives?


That last question is genuine. Ideas welcomed.

 

 


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More than Seven Reasons to Celebrate

Princess Imagination on her last birthday... it feels like just yesterday.

Princess Imagination on her last birthday… it feels like just yesterday.

Today Princess Imagination turns seven years old. She has been talking about and planning this day for months. I, on the other hand, don’t quite feel ready.

This post, however, is not about my ambivalence about my daughter’s fast progress through childhood. It is about the question of how to celebrate this milestone in her journey. In the context of her intense discussion of her upcoming birthday I had plenty of reminders about this opportunity, and since writing is the way I process my challenges and joys, it was obvious to me that I wanted to write something.

I took a few stabs at something that would be appropriately expressive of my huge pride at being her mother.

I tried the format of a letter telling her what I wanted her to see in herself.

I tried an explanatory list of “seven” amazing things I see in her – one for each year.

But none of these formats were quite clicking. They felt forced.

And then I re-read a poem that she had spontaneously inspired through her play a few months ago. It is just a sensory description of a common place childhood moment, but that is what makes it feel right to me in this context.

Celebrating her childhood is not about formulas, or lists, or deep, expressive analysis.

It is about the amazing joy of watching her live ordinary moments, and rediscovering simple joy in that observation.

 


 

Celebration

 

Bright yellow

like a little globe of sunlight

captured in a ball of childhood delight

floating for the benefit of her bright eyes.

Smooth and soft

not burning as the touch of sun drops should

but pulsing

squirming

dancing away

from playful fingertips.

It tastes like laughter

filling up her mouth with bubbling joy,

sweet salivation wetting lips

that part in breathless expectation

Her tiny nostrils flare

as dust and cornstarch

beaten from the air by flailing arms and flying fingers

tickle her delicate nose, tempting a sneeze

to join the riotous sounds of celebration

giggles and squeals

weaving a complicated dance

between bright, one-syllable commands

“jump”

“look”

“get it!”

But then the sharp report

*POP*

and for one frozen second

 

air itself contracts to mourn the loss

– – –

but then the swirling, active fun refills the space

so lately occupied by her little drop of sun…

the next balloon is pink.


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The Privilege of Needs

My son had a bit of a meltdown tonight at bedtime. If you were to ask him this was because he was hungry and mean Mommy wouldn’t let him have more food. I have a slightly different version, which recalls that an hour earlier he was sitting at the dinner table in front of plentiful dishes of food whining that I was making him eat food he didn’t want. Despite his protests, that particular battle of wills was won by the parent brigade and he eventually ate a reasonable helping of dinner, although missing out on dessert due to the time it took to eat and the general drama involved.

Needless to say, the bedtime recurrence of drama was not actually about an empty stomach and was actually about petulance that his Daddy and I are taking a harder line on whining and general stubbornness.

Still…. when my four-year-old — consummate expert that he is in the art of conjuring big-glistening-tears to roll down soft-quivering-cheeks — peered through thick, wet eyelashes to moan “but I’m so hungry!”… IT GOT TO ME. I defy any mother to hear her child cry about hunger (real or imagined) and remain unmoved.

It was genuinely hard for me not to cave. My mind flitted downstairs to the kitchen, where a variety of quick, filling, and reasonably nutritious snacks were there for the taking. I started to mentally flicking through them. What could I offer that he would accept and then could eat quickly so as not to overly delay teeth-brushing?

But I stopped myself. Food was not what my son needed from me – boundaries were. He needs me to teach him important life skills like self-control, and good manners, and operating within a recognized and consistent routine. These skills will allow him to develop into a balanced adult who is able to form positive relationships and see himself as competent to organize his life and to meet his needs in appropriate ways.

maslow's hierarchy of needs five stage pyramide

imagine borrowed from http://www.simplepsychology.org

In my social work training the theories of humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow where a central theoretical framework, particularly his “hierarchy of needs.” This theory identifies five primary levels of human need – physiological, safety, social, esteem, and self-actualization – and posits that these needs must be met in ascending order. In other words, physiological needs (like food, water, and shelter) are the foundation on which others must build. These needs must be met first before the psyche can spare attention for needs that are further up the list.

On Maslow’s hierarchy, the needs I am focusing on with my son at the moment are overlapping the third and fourth levels. The relational skills I am trying to teach him are important for his ability to meet his own social needs, and the lessons about his responsibility to control his decisions within a known routine are important to his development of a sense of mastery and self-esteem.

In the midst of tonight’s bedtime battle, however, a contrast of needs struck me with staggering force. When his shaking little voice spoke those three little words — “I’m so hungry” — I suddenly understood my own privilege in a way I hadn’t quite experienced before.

What would it be like for this conversation to actually be about food?

What would it be to see tears rolling down my son’s face, and to know that they were genuine, that his little belly really was grumbling, and to know there was no food in my kitchen to fill it.

Even the thought makes my hands start shaking and stings the corner of my eyes with hot tears. I really don’t think I can even imagine what that must be like.

But I know far too many women know that feeling all too well. I have met some of them. Some I have seen across the gulf of charity – handing them some money, or a bag of food at the food pantry. Some of them I have met in the course of research – sitting in their living rooms or in local libraries, talking about their struggles so that I could try to give them voice in reports that might gain the ear of a decision-maker. I have seen them as people. I have seen them as mothers. I have seen them as equals.

But I have never before understood my own privilege in contrast to their stories in quite the way that I did tonight.

I do not imagine that this realization makes any difference whatever for the hundreds of thousands of mothers who are putting their children to bed hungry tonight. If they had the time to read these musings they would probably sound irrelevant… I hope not offensive. But those mothers are doing much more important things than reading my blog. They are using all of their resources, and ingenuity, and over-taxed energy to meet their children’s basic needs, because those have to come first.

I don’t offer these musings for them. I offer them for the rest of us, especially those for whom it is so easy to discount the reality of privilege. Privilege is not a political idea or a word on a pyramid-shaped chart that social work students have to learn in their theory class.

Privilege is knowing it’s really about something else when your son tells you he is hungry.