Faith, Family, & Focaccia

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

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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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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

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.