Faith, Family, & Focaccia

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


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My “Innocent” Addiction

Hi. My name is Serena, and I’m addicted to my I-phone. I have been clean for about 30 minutes.

OK. With that confession out of the way, I want to apologize to anyone reading this who has had their life ravaged by addiction (be it to a controlled substance, or food, or gambling, or whatever). I know my addiction has not risen to the bar, or dropped me to the depths, that typically moves someone through the doors of a 12-step program. Nor is it so extreme that I expect my husband and children will be seeking consolation in a support group. I do really know that because I spent a year of my MSW program running a weekly spiritually group for homeless addicts in recovery in Trenton, New Jersey. I have seen just how destroyed rock bottom can be, and I’ve never been there. I’ve never even boarded the bus whose final destination is Rock Bottom. I have deep compassion for people who lose everything to addiction and awed respect for those who somehow find the courage to try to climb their way back up from the chasm. I would never make light of their struggles and strengths.

I borrow the language of recovery, however, because I can recognize the patterns of addiction, even in an apparently innocuous form. I see the classic subterfuge when I am hiding in the bathroom with my phone on mute so that the tell-tale sounds of yet another failed attempt to master level 29 of Candy Crush won’t betray the real reason I told the kids I needed “privacy.” I recognize the addict’s twitch when I hear my phone ding its  friendly notice that “I have mail,” and my instant reaction is to move toward the sound, salivating to my own personal Pavlovian bell. I blush at the misplaced priorities when I feel compelled to “just send this quick e-mail” to the random mom is my daughter’s class while that flesh-and-blood daughter lays waiting for me to read her bedtime story (Really? The clarification about next week’s field trip can’t wait 20 minutes?). These symptoms warn me that I am giving control of my time management, and my emotional equilibrium, and most importantly my attention, to an innocent little device that slides so comfortingly into my back pocket.

While I won’t elevate them with the label “rock bottom,” there have been a few moments in the last week that have made it impossible to hush a persistent little whisper in my mind that murmurs “danger, danger, you are losing yourself and your professed moral priorities to the herald of mindless distraction.”

The first incident was last Friday night, while my family was out to dinner at our favorite little restaurant just around the corner. To say it had been a hard week is rather imprecise, since that category can cover so many diverse levels of challenge. We weren’t in Boston (or Darfur, or Syria) so on one level we had no cause for complaint. But, we were dealing with the follow-up steps after a medical crisis in our extended family, and Tyler had faced some frustrations at work over and above the norm, and we had both missed our 7 hour nightly sleep minimum by a mile, so we were feeling drained and exhausted. Time to leave the cooking to someone else, and get away from all the mess in the house, and just enjoy a quiet dinner in familiar surroundings. While Tyler took the Gigglemonster to the bathroom Princess Imagination asked for her sticker dolly dressing book, seizing the opportunity to maximize her time with that coveted entertainment that is generally rationed out for pre-food restaurant moments like this. Rather than just soak in the few moments of restful silence, my hand groped in my purse for its little blue companion, and within moments I was washing my brain with the flow of status updates, political “posters”, and pictures of various cuties from my friends’ progeny that is my Facebook newsfeed. Tyler and the Gigglemonster returned from the bathroom with the news that he had thought about peeing standing up (but opted for the alternative in the end),  but the excitement of the news slipped away as our little man’s fingers locked on the he had left on the table and he was lost in the world of Cars2. I clicked on “just one more” FB post whose picture had caught my attention, when Tyler’s tired voice called me back to the present. “My daughter is playing with her sticker book, my son is on the Leappad, and my wife is surfing Facebook. I’m so glad I took my family out to dinner!” Oops! Sorry. The phone went back to the purse and I resolutely clenched my fingers for the rest of the meal whenever its dinging voice called for their companionship. I have a problem, I told myself. I need to set some limits, and I clearly need to set a better example for my children!

Fast forward to last night. The frequent post-dinner fog hovers over my exhausted mind in the indeterminate hour before 9:00 bedtime, and I have slipped into the wishful assumption that Tyler is moving the kids through the necessary preparations so that I can have 5 minutes of blissful vegetation. (He is actually asleep on the living room floor while the Gigglemonster zooms cars over his stomach and around his head, but his far more excessive sleep deprivation entitles him to this mini-coma.) Enter Princess Imagination, searching the house for a mother who has answered her persistent, eager calls for attention only with vague promises of “in a minute, Sweetie.” “Whatcha doing, Mommy?” asked with the bright-eyed curiosity that I pray she never loses. “Oh, I just want to finish this one post, Honey. I’m almost done.” I’m ashamed to admit that this satisfies her – my little Observer who sees everything around her as an opportunity to inquire and learn doesn’t even bother to ask what the post is about, or what it means to “finish a post” on my phone. That’s old news, and the quicker she stops bugging me the quicker I will finish and give her some attention – she has learned that lesson very well. I finish the sentence and click the little blue button to send my “wisdom” off into the world wide web, but the irony isn’t lost of me. The subject of my post? My two cents on a comment string from the “positive parenting” web group about dealing with toddlers who throw tantrums when rushed through daily tasks. And the irony? In my post-toddler-stage-wisdom I was sententiously preaching about how you need to make sure you build extra time into your routines so that your children can move at their own pace, not yours.

Zing! That was the boomerang of self-righteous superiority circling back to hit me right in the solar plexus.

After bedtime last night my soul was feeling a bit staggered from the force of the dual-blows dealt to my self-image by these two obvious failures to live up to my own standards for decent parenting and partnering. I sought healing in the pages of a book Princess Imagination had inquired about earlier. The Book of Dads is admittedly not written exactly to me, but its humorous and soulful reflections on the other half of parenting might still offer me some commiseration in my failings. The introduction was witty, and real, and just what I was looking for, and I dove into the first essay full of expectation that I had struck on just the right pick-me-up. This particular reflection was from a Dad experiencing the very earliest stages of fatherhood, but his comments reached back to a time before parenting, when he watched his sister mothering her children and was awed by her example:

“…it was her nonstop selflessness that intimidated me, how she gave so much of herself, always, every day, a perpetual gusher of soul and spirit that left me exhausted just watching it.”

I had to stop reading right there. It just hurt too much.

You see, my younger sister said something very similar to me once, as she watched me mothering Princess Imagination a few years ago. This was before the I-phone, but also before I had the luxury of so much work-free time. In fact, this wonder-filled comment about selflessness had come when I was working fulltime and caring for a toddler while pregnant with my second. How was it that just a few short years ago I really did think nothing of devoting every moment of the wake-time I had with my daughter to focusing on her needs, but now, when my daily routine includes 6 whole hours of child-free time, I couldn’t put down my web-conversation with perfect strangers to respond to her call?  I clearly have a problem. I have lost my bearings in the world of easy-access information and entertainment and I am worried that I am wasting the precious time I have to be a mother who is actually sought out by her children. Worse still, I worry that I am setting an example of disengagement and distraction that could trap my children in a lifetime of electronic addiction as well.

The I-phone: the miracle restaurant entertainment.

The I-phone: the miracle restaurant entertainment.

 

And so, I started this post with a confession, and I am ending it with a request. Please help. If you have struggled with this or a similar “innocent” addiction, I covet any advice you can offer to aid in my recovery. And if you are one of the readers who has contact with me in the “real world.” Please hold me accountable. You see, I started thinking about the danger of the technology-vortex last summer! It was going to be my third or fourth post. But other topics kept coming up that were more located in a specific moment. This was something I could blog about at any time. Besides, once I blog about it, I have to start doing something about it, and that might be too hard. But what would be really hard would be to gradually lose the most precious relationships in my life to the pernicious pull of electronic distraction. I would rather live the rest of myself without a single moment of electronic mail, or games, or status updates, than to see the light of excitement just to talk to me fade from my daughter’s eyes.


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Conjugation

Just a short reflection today inspired by a question on a medical form.

Today I trekked Princess Imagination and the Gigglemonster across town to visit a pediatric eye specialist. The Princess had some indications at her last well-visit that she might be having some vision problems with one eye, so I conquered my fear of Italian-over-the-phone, made her an appointment with the recommended specialist, and made the 50-minute, two-subway-line trip with my massive double-stroller and two munchkins in tow. The good news from the visit is that, despite a slight astigmatism in her right eye, the doctor thinks we can wait and see if the eye corrects itself. It means repeating the whole process in 4 months for a re-check, but at least glasses and an eye patch are not a current necessity.

The part of the visit that inspired this entry, however, was the parental release that I had to sign before she could be seen. Of course, the form was in Italian, so I am not entirely sure what it said, other than asserting that I was her parent. The receptionist (nice as she was) didn’t seem terribly concerned that I understood what I was signing, as long as I completed all the relevant personal data. For the most part, this was within the capacity of my limited Italian: date of birth, place of residence, fiscal code (what functions as the Italian social security number), and country of citizenship – no problem. Then came this mysterious completion of my prescribed self-description “e essere coniugata con ____________”.

Huh?! After 19 months my conversational Italian has advanced to the point where I no longer carry my handy Italian phrase book around, although I doubt it would have helped me in this situation. I stared at the mystifying phrase for a minute or two, trying unsuccessfully to get a few moments of quiet from my little chatterboxes so that I could concentrate. Then I gave up and pulled out my iphone and appealed to google translate. After carefully typing the query, I got this helpful translation: “to be conjugated with.”

Huh?! It felt almost like a deliberate insult – “not only do you fail to correctly conjugate Italian verbs in the majority of your sentences, but you don’t even know that the word conjugate means”! Embarrassed but undaunted, I stuffed my pride into my purse with my not-so-smart-phone and asked the receptionist. “Yes. If you are married?” she explained. Ah!

Ok, so there is an English reference point. In my defense, the description “conjugal” is generally restricted to correctional institution references to marital relations. My first reaction to the revelation was to giggle and text my husband to let him know that we are “conjugated.” As I thought about this unfamiliar application of the word, however, it began to seem quite appropriate. I think about verbal conjugation very frequently in my current context. I am really making an effort, in my Italian conversations, to not simply speak in the present tense and ask my conversation partners to figure out what I mean. This means constant struggles to figure out how to talk about things that used to happen, or have happened, or I expect to happen, or I hope will happen. Conjugation is the way that all of these things are communicated. Conjugation expresses the way that people and events verbally travel through time.

What a lovely way to describe marriage! Tyler and I are travelling through time together. We have a rich history together, including both past memories and continuing patterns. We have a present that includes current realities as well as some “shoulds” and “woulds.” And we look forward to a future with concrete expectations as well as hopes and dreams.

So, despite my giggles, I love the idea of being conjugated with Tyler. This phrasing reinforces the understanding that our marriage joins us together in the passage through time. This time in Italy is a special period in that passage, one that offers us so many new opportunities to learn and experience together. And there is no one I would rather be joined with in the process!

 

 


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My Hero

During our August vacation last summer my husband, Tyler, had his first extended encounter with my life as a stay-at-home Mom. We spent three weeks travelling around Italy, staying primarily in self-catering apartments or villas. While this set-up is ideal with young children, who need space to spread out and play and who rebel if asked to eat too many restaurant meals in succession, it means that Mommy’s vacation looks much like everyday life. I still have to cook, do dishes, and wash load after load of laundry, as well as getting the kids ready every morning, organizing all the snacks and paraphernalia needed for day trips, and arbitrating the daily disputes and crises that inevitably arise with close siblings. I do not mean to suggest that I did all of this with no help from Tyler. He certainly pitched in with the food preparation and the child-wrangling. But it was his vacation too, and since I was used to all the daily tasks of child-caring, I generally took the lead. At some point during the third week of our trip, most likely after some insignificant but traumatic episode of toddler rebellion, Tyler collapsed on the couch in exhaustion. He turned to me with a new-found respect in his eyes and said:

“Don’t get me wrong. I love spending time with the kids, but I don’t want to switch jobs with you!”

I have to admit I was highly gratified by this tacit acknowledgement. Much as I treasure the opportunity to take this time off from paid employment to focus my energy and my ingenuity on raising our little ones, it is really hard work! I sometimes feel like 35 is simply too old to be caring for a two-year-old and a five-year-old, who require endless supplies of enthusiasm and physical endurance. At other times I feel that I need another ten or twenty years of maturing to be able to respond to them with the wisdom and patience they need and deserve. Nevertheless, I work very hard at the job of mothering and my husband’s appreciation for that work means more than anyone else’s.

On this year’s August vacation, however, it has been my turn to come to a new appreciation of what my husband does as my co-parent. It is not simply all of the things he does for and with the kids (bathing, playing, carrying, disciplining, etc.), or even the way he does many things I cannot do (like tossing them high in the air and catching the wriggling mass of giggles this creates, while playing in the pool). What has really struck me on this holiday is the way that he steps in to handle things when I am at my wit’s (or patience’s) end. My husband has a way of coming to the rescue, and he does so without playing the hero.

A simple, but very telling, example is the best illustration of this quality. Our hotel room in Athens was small but more than adequate in all ways but one: the sofa bed. This second bed, which allowed a fifteen square meter room to accommodate our family of four, really does not deserve to be included in the category of sleep surfaces. It had by far the worst mattress I have ever slept on, and that competition includes some fairly robust rivals. It felt like it was constructed entirely of thin springs, which had worn unevenly over a long life of hotel guest abuse, with nothing but a thin layer of upholstery fabric to hold it together. We arrived in Athens late in the afternoon after three long days and 30 hours in the car. Our first stop was the roof top pool, then showers and dinner. It was not until we were all semi-comatose with exhaustion and ready for sleep that we opened the sofa bed. Tyler simply pulled it out and set up the inflatable bed rail for Alaina’s side, then crawled in with no comment. I was too tired to really pay attention to that act of self-sacrifice at the time, but in the blazing light of the Athens morning I could easily see just how far Tyler’s 6 foot 4 inch frame was hanging off the edge of the bed. I immediately decreed that he couldn’t sleep on that bed again, even without having yet felt the mattress. That night I felt it – all night long. Have I described yet just how bad that mattress was?

On the third night I knew that neither Tyler nor I could hope for a decent night’s rest on the sofa bed. Unfortunately, one of us had to try since our kids are at an age where getting them to sleep in a hotel room requires the night-long companionship a parent. Trying to stay positive, I reasoned that at least part of the discomfort must derive from the mattress’s position atop the rickety metal frame of the pull-out couch. So, Tyler man-handled the unwieldy mattress off of the frame and somehow managed to balance it precariously on his back (since there was no available floor space in the tiny room) while wrangling the bed frame back into the sofa. Since Tyler had not shrunk nor the mattress expanded in the process, it was obvious that I still needed to sleep on the repositioned mattress. The change had made a marginal improvement, very marginal. By the fourth night I was desperate. My sleep deprived brain reasoned that, since the kids were also exhausted by travel, sight-seeing, and swimming, their exhaustion would remove their need for parental bed-sharing. I was able to convince Princess Imagination that it would be really fun sleep on the couch cushions while the Gigglemonster slept down on the floor. By putting his favorite short film on the video player as an alternative to a bedtime story the Gigglemonster also happily climbed into bed to watch. Tyler and I had 30 blessed minutes of hope that the kids would drift off to the soothing twang of Tow Mater.

Any parent of a toddler will realize just how futile that hope was. The moment the movie finished the Gigglemonster realized that Mommy was not in the bed next to him, and that this was a crisis of monumental proportions. If possible, our Greek surroundings have actually magnified our son’s already significant oedipal complex. He launched himself at me screaming “I need Mommy!” and without a word Tyler moved to the mattress on the floor, leaving me and my little Momma’s boy the comfortable bed for the rest of the night.

It is not simply Tyler’s willingness for self-sacrifice that impresses me. It is the way he just does it, with no comment and no need for effusive gratitude. I am conscious that my own acts of self-sacrifice are not so silently born. Following the nights I slept on the mattress-of-discomfort its abuse of my body and my sleep cycle was a major topic of conversation. But even though the ill fit of the mattress for Tyler must have made it even worse for him, he didn’t complain. He was doing what was needed to help his family, and there was nothing to be said. This is what I mean about the way Tyler comes to the rescue. He doesn’t play the hero, he just is one.

Last Monday Tyler and I celebrated our twelfth wedding anniversary. For those of you who are counting, that means we were married at the tender age of 23. I often say that, in our case, marrying young was a wonderful gift because it allowed us to grow up together. Even though we are not “just kids” any longer I feel like that start in our married life, that orientation toward growing up and growing together, is continuing to bless our marriage. On this August holiday Tyler’s comment about my role changed slightly. “I don’t want to switch job with you, but I do love this — being with the kids like this.” That simple shift in what comes after the “but” shows Tyler’s on-going growth towards the joy that I find in motherhood. I only hope that I am also growing toward the kind of self-giving love that I get to see every day in my Hero.