On Not Hiding Behind the Curtain

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Four of my kids recently performed in a musical production of The Wizard of Oz.  We had a tot, a city father, a winkie guard, and a crow–and for the second performance, the winkie guard also doubled as part of the tornado.

Of course they were all very small roles, but still a good experience for the kids all the way around–having to audition individually for the teacher, committing to several months’ worth of after-school rehearsals, and the joys of being part of a cast.  Most of my kids weren’t initially interested in participating, but I encouraged them to do it anyway because I felt it was valuable.  How will you know whether you like or excel at something if you never give it a shot?

Plus, I confess I always did love the movie.  I grew up watching mean old Mrs. Gulch get her witch’s comeuppance, and the songs were so much fun, and Glinda’s sparkling dress captivated my little girl imagination and heart over and over again.  For whatever reason, though, as an adult watching an amateur children’s performance of the film, I was most struck by the image of the wizard.  Hiding behind his (or her, in the case of our little play) curtain and sounding mean and tough, but then being found out as just a mere (wo)man, and only upon accepting the realities of his own station and insecurities, conveying such lovely gifts as courage, a brain, and a heart.

There is some sort of deeper meaning to be found there, I think.  As a Catholic wife, mother, friend, and writer, that kind of self-awareness and authenticity is something worthy of my reflection and, I fear, my pursuit.  I say “fear”, because it sounds like an awful lot of difficult and time-consuming work to not only know who you are and where you stand, but also to be perfectly comfortable with not only your own limitations, but also the resulting perceptions.

So even though the rehearsals and performances are all over, and the constant singing and humming of Judy Garland tunes around my house seems to have (mercifully!) subsided, I’m still thinking about the wizard, and about the curtain.

I wrote something a couple of weeks ago that sparked some conversation on my normally quiet blog and social media accounts.  (Leave it to me to publish something about USING THE RESTROOM, and have it go viral-ish.  My inner-ten-year-old finds this hilarious, by the way, and my very-mature-mother-to-eight self is, well, kind of embarrassed.) For the most part it was good dialogue, but I did find myself feeling a little exposed in my feeble attempt at outlining one aspect of a compassionate approach to men and women made in the image of God.

Especially considering the fact that I’m not some credentialed college professor or uber fancy blogger.  I’m just me, sitting in my pajamas at my keyboard, while my three-year-old dresses her dolls and goes in and out of the house a million times to play with the cats that I’m allergic to.  Sometimes she lets them in, like she did ten minutes ago, and I have to chase them out.  I watch the clock to know when I need to leave to pick up my kindergartner, I throw in a load of laundry, I take a break to empty the dishwasher.  The only reason I started writing in the first place was to chronicle an adoption process for myself, and though I do now provide content for public consumption, I don’t see myself as an ambassador for a whole lot of anything besides “people recently and passionately addicted to Trader Joe’s Cookie Butter.”

Being a writer is, inevitably, vulnerable.

My piece about some of the Christian response to Target’s restroom policy was not intended to provide a Catholic perspective on gender identity vs. sex, homosexuality, marriage, or the sorry state of our culture.  It was not intended to be a wholesale critique of people opposed to the policy, nor was it intended to marginalize those supporting it.  It was really just an honest, personal, and admittedly human reflection upon the matter.  From an at-home mom trying to raise confident, faith-filled, and loving children in a world marked by suffering, confusion, and self-centeredness. Pope Francis speaks often of mercy, of the Church being a field hospital, and of the need to seek after those in the margins. There are countless ways to do that, certainly, and my concern (which continues to grow) was simply that this beautiful vision of living out our faith may be at odds with the way some Christians approach online engagement.

I confess that after having been accused of contributing to the moral decline of society, I found myself wondering if I should have just avoided the silly topic of retail spaces and bathrooms altogether. Did I write something that was, in fact, at odds with what I know to be God’s plan for men and women?  I certainly believe both sexes are created in God’s image, that marriage is a Sacrament to be entered into between one man and one woman and, furthermore, that marriage is ordered towards the procreation of children.  (Those crazy Catholics!  This is why I have so many kids!)  I agree with Pope Francis when he writes in Amoris Laetitia that “the young need to be helped to accept their own body as it was created” (no. 285).  So should I have simply remained quiet if I didn’t want to approach the subject of transgenderism from a dogmatic, adversarial or philosophical perspective?

And, was it WRONG to leave out the troubling statistics regarding transition and sex reassignment surgery, or the guidelines set forth by mental health professionals?  They don’t paint a very happy or optimistic picture.  And I wholeheartedly believe those things are absolutely crucial to the much larger conversation, partly because as parents, we MUST be informed, aware, and prepared (as best we can be) to answer hard questions from our children regarding sexuality, life, and love.  Who is to say that none of my kids will ever have questions about their own self-identity, or that they won’t ever have a transgendered friend?  We must seek after the truth, every last one of us, and do our best to live and express that truth.

My husband is fond of saying that kindness goes a long way.  He is right.  And though I do have somewhat of an online platform here (gosh I hate that word), I find social media falls horribly short when it comes to relationships and conversations.  And, I also think that you can approach objective truths and realities from different, nuanced directions.  You can hold the Catholic Church’s views on creation and sexuality while simultaneously being concerned about how those ascribing to alternative ideas are being treated or characterized online.

But in any case, the more I think about that trembling old wizard and about what it means to make yourself known, I’m really not sorry I wrote from the angle I did.  Nor do I believe it belies some sort of aversion to sharing life-giving truth on my part.  Speaking openly about perceived injustices or the mistreatment of individuals is something I simply do not regret.  If my words did not represent the sort of thing you’d prefer to see written about the subject of transgenderism, that’s okay!  No doubt other (far more talented than I!) writers out there are publishing those kinds of things–they are probably also people who don’t write in their pajamas or chase cats and toddlers around the house.  I get that a lot of conservative-leaning folks (regardless their religious affiliation) feel like their ideals and values are under attack from the media, and like this necessitates a certain defensiveness–but then I also think that the media is just that: the media.  A two-dimensional screen.  If politics steal your joy, take up all your time, or land you in near-constant online arguments, feel free to turn off your TV, get off of Facebook, and get to know people in your churches and neighborhoods and schools instead.  Build real relationships, host coffee dates, extend a smile to fellow tired moms.

Because really, friends?

At the end of the day, life is just plain hard enough.  Even without all the noise.  Or the division.  Or the polemics and shouting.  I love truth, clarity, and straight-talk, but I also love kindness, context, and approachability. Maybe that’s a darn near impossible balance to strike as a writer but meh, I don’t really care.  I’ll probably try to do it anyway.  Same way I explain truths of the faith to my children, while also encouraging them to love others, period.

Truth be told I want to become less like L. Frank Baum’s wizard–both in real life, and online.  Less cloaked, less hidden, more comfortable with being known.  Sounds simple but for an introvert like me, that is a lifelong journey!  I care WAY TOO MUCH what people think of me.  I am insecure.  But I’m also just plain tired of FEAR.  Fear of the future, fear of the election, fear of speaking up for others, fear of being exposed for caring about the wrong kinds of people, fear of criticism.  Fear serves a right and healthy purpose, but it can also be deceiving, crippling, and thieving.

And, I figure you could spend your whole life hiding behind that curtain, saying all the right things and honing your image, speaking in a loud and confident voice and convincing people that you are the biggest, the strongest, the most right–or maybe just simply that you’re “one of them”.  A member of the inner circle, that elite group that says all the stuff they’re supposed to say, in the way they’re supposed to say it.  It is certainly safer to remain in those shadows, to avoid the risk of being misunderstood or written off.  It is easier to draw lines from afar and decide who’s in and who’s out.  And I’ve seen these tendencies afoot in the pro-life movement, apologetics circles, the blogosphere, various social media sites, and of course also in real life.

But, I don’t want to live that way.  I want to be human, and I want to see others as human.  When Toto exposes the wizard for who he really is, it is only then that the frightened old man can give a heart, courage, and brains to Dorothy’s friends.  It seems too that as Christians, it is when we are authentic, kind, honest, and engaged, that we can bring Jesus’ love to a world desperately hungry for it.  This is not the same thing as embracing moral relativism, or an “I’m okay/you’re okay” paradigm–the truth is that not one of us is okay.  We are clumsy, broken, wounded, struggling. But we also have the potential to live and to thrive in the hope we have in Christ!  We can make the most of our time here on earth, we can choose to live in the light of joy and to pursue love above all things.  We can seek, embrace, and honor hard-and-fast truth while also maintaining a general predisposition to kindness towards others.

Most of my life as a wife, mother, writer, and friend is lived right there in that tension, anyhow.  We belong to two public school communities, my children play on assorted sports teams, and we have a number of non-Catholic family members and friends. Yet I don’t often find myself in real-life situations necessitating fierce doctrinal or political debates, the type I see playing out every.single.day. on Facebook and Twitter feeds.  And I suspect it’s the same for most people.  So why the disconnect?  Is it perhaps a problem that we are so willing to engage in what I can only call aggressive behavior online, where we wizards can hide behind our digital curtains and reduce human beings to who they vote for or what they think about xyz, when most of real life is not lived in that space and, what’s more, should not be lived in that space?

Of course nobody will ever all agree upon the “right” way to discuss a particular topic, or the “best” way to influence the culture for good.  I sure as heck don’t have the answers, though you can read a few of my humble thoughts on that here.  But I will do my best to be myself, and to stand for truth, and to pursue love.  If I write something, you can be sure I mean it.  And I hope that my integrity as a woman and a blogger always stems not only from maintaining a consistent moral and religious ethic (which I certainly hope to do!), but also from the fact that I don’t want to live behind a curtain, too afraid to speak honestly about assorted things for fear of losing followers, looking a certain way, or losing people’s respect. It’s why you’ll find me saying that hormonal birth control is pretty much one of the worst things ever to happen to women, and why I said Christians should stop using social media accounts to make fun of those in the transgender community, and why most recently, I wrote something critical of the federal government’s joint resolution on students and gender identity.  People are of course always and forever free to disagree, criticize, and form opinions about me or my ideas–that’s what writers do, is throw something out there for thought and discussion.  I refuse to be one of those bloggers that says stuff and then wonders why it nets some amount of negative feedback.  If I can say it, I am determined to accept the fall-out.  I’ll stand by my words, right out in front. Even if I’m shaking like a leaf.

And, I hereby cordially invite you to join me, and consider coming out from behind your own curtain.  We all have one, no matter what it is–perhaps you struggle to make authentic social connections in real life, or find yourself wracked with shame over things in the past.  Maybe you’re angry about the direction your life has taken, are hurting over a broken relationship, or feel like you have nothing to offer other people.  Maybe it’s nothing so dramatic, you just want to be more intentional about what you do or honest about who you are.  Whatever it is, your community needs your voice and your input, and ultimately, it needs you.

Because where would the tin man, scarecrow, and lion be, were the wizard still hiding?

On Having Compassion, Shopping at Target, and Using the Restroom

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Back in my college days in California–oh, the yore!–my plan was to get an advanced degree in Psychology, and become a licensed counselor of some sort.  This however was only after a lively detour through Agricultural Business and Political Science, because I wanted to be a lobbyist, too.  Tough decisions, I tell you!  Now of course I’m a mom and a freelancer, though I like to think I do a fair bit of psychoanalysis and counseling on a daily basis, here, around the house.  I also occasionally yell things like WHY ARE YOU DOING THAT?! and DON’T MAKE DUMB DECISIONS!, which I’m assuming people in the helping profession do NOT do–but I never did earn my degree, because I got married and then got pregnant, instead.  More detours.  So I’m telling myself that I must have missed that particular class, the one on “things not to say to small human beings”.

Anyway, a couple of nights ago I was reminiscing to my husband (forever privy to All Of The Things Rattling Around in My Brain) about a particular class I took as part of my psychology major.  “Human Sexuality” was credit/no credit, helped fulfill my graduation requirements, and frankly?  It sounded fairly interesting.  I guess I’m weird like that, this whole being fascinated by human behavior thing that compels me to buy books by the likes of Erik Erikson, Margaret Sanger, and Betty Freidan.  That I sit and read.  For fun.  But I digress.

In case you’re wondering (and I know you are, particularly if you did not attend a secular state university like I did), we studied the usual stuff–STDs, the historical significance of the Kinsey Institute, and the science behind the sexual response cycle.  The latter was probably not necessary for college-aged students to be studying in-depth (and the accompanying video was beyond disturbing for way too many reasons to list here), but hey, it was an easy class that helped me maintain my GPA.  So I may have been blushing, but I wasn’t complaining.

There was one class period, though, that I can still remember quite clearly and which was (in my opinion) really very valuable.  A panel of men and women representing a range of what I shall call (remember, I’m just a clumsy amateur) “alternative sexualities” came to answer questions, and talk about their lives.  There was a lesbian college student, two transgendered women, and a transgendered man.  They explained when they first felt “different”, what the transition had been like, how devastating it was to experience divorce and some level of estrangement from family and friends.  One of the women-who-was-born-a-man shared about how hard it was initially for her son to see his father become a woman, and how that relationship was uncomfortable and awkward for a long time.

The other man-to-woman talked about being a successful engineer at a local power plant, and about how embarrassing it was going through this transition in the workplace, among co-workers she’d known for many years. Particularly when she needed to use the restroom.

My thought at the time was that the entire matter of gender dysphoria was incredibly sad–I have no idea how it feels to be born one way and yet feel another, I had never experienced a wholesale identity shift that resulted in fractured relationships, and at nineteen years old I had never even thought to question my sexuality or gender.  It had simply, truly never occurred to me. I was a woman, I was attracted to men, I had a boyfriend.  I also had a handful of gay friends, and I would ask them questions and listen to what they had to say, and I could sympathize with what they were going through.  (Disapproval from family members, the complexities of coming out, being othered.)  But it wasn’t personal for me, and in any case they were all just people, anyhow.  Not so very different from me in most ways.

So while I have always believed in God’s design for marriage, men and women, I have never seen that as being mutually exclusive with recognizing a person’s dignity–which to me includes not only how they were created but also their struggles, wounds, and experiences.  Statistically speaking, men and women identifying as transgender are more likely to be depressed, are at greater risk for being victims of violence, and they have a higher incidence of suicidal thoughts.  Not an easy road, obviously.  Modern clinicians try to say that these negative effects are mostly the result of the discrimination transgender individuals experience throughout society, but personally I don’t think that tells the whole story. Gender variance is complex.  Feeling isolated and shamed certainly doesn’t help, but it doesn’t explain all of the inner turmoil or anguish experienced by these dear people.  There’s more going on there.

And that brings me to this whole recent uproar over Target’s restroom policy.

A lot of conservative-leaning Christians are upset, because the retail chain (that we all know and desperately, desperately love) came out and stated that shoppers and employees are free to use the bathroom of the gender they identify as.

Cue the wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Truth be told, I believe there is good reason for some of the concern.  As a woman, I don’t really want some weird dude possessing the legal right to hang out in my bathroom.  Because what happens if a very bad person uses this policy as an opportunity to hurt someone?  I’m not talking about people identifying as transgender by the way, just opportunistic wackos who are evil and creepy.  Therefore, these sorts of policies may set a bad precedent, and I wonder why they’re necessary in the first place–because wouldn’t most folks identifying as transgender more or less appear as the gender they identify as?  So they could head into the bathroom of their choice without anybody caring? Seems like maybe this is more a situation of Target hoping to protect themselves from legal problems, which I really can’t fault them for, either.  I also think there is a danger in the societal normalization of what is really a very serious mental struggle for people.  There is the potential for the spreading of further confusion, and the confirming of that confusion.  You can read my related articles about Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner here and here.

All of that to say that if you’re concerned about this policy opening the door to bad-things-only-mildly-related-to-transgenderism, I hear you.

But on the other hand, well, I can’t shake that afternoon all those years ago, sitting in Human Sexuality, when the middle aged MTW expressed deep anxiety over using the restrooms at work. This person was not a criminal and wasn’t looking to do anything weird.  They weren’t trying to make anyone uncomfortable and they certainly weren’t pushing any sort of agenda.  But they experience a disconnect in an area that most of us take for granted, and that is where I think perhaps the Christian community is missing something in all of the angry hand-wringing and pearl-clutching and mocking of the transgender community.

And this is terribly tangential, but I think we Christians occasionally do a less-than-honorable job of extending mercy, grace, and hope to people.  Particularly people: living alternative lifestyles, the mentally ill, and women in difficult relationships or circumstances.  Just this morning I read an excellent article in Slate about the pitfalls (read: nightmares) of unregulated “Christian-based” counseling.  I have also done a fair amount of reading and reflecting upon the conservative Christian homeschooling bubble.  And I have written multiple times about the challenges implicit in raising differently-abled children in a community of typical, perfect-seeming families.  And this is just my two cents, but we need to tread carefully when we’re talking about human beings.  My experiences, my feelings, and my struggles may be different from yours.  Doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as objective reality, and it doesn’t mean we should suppress truthful and difficult solutions for fear of giving offense, but we need to be very careful in how we approach people and their unique situations.  We need to ask ourselves if we are hurting more than helping.  We need to consider whether making fun of people and their challenges is advancing any sort of cause beyond just making ourselves feel good–photographing yourself in a pirate costume, for example, and asking if that makes you a pirate, is not going to change anyone’s mind or heart or policies.  It IS going to be good for a few laughs with your friends, and alienating anyone experiencing gender dysphoria or confusion.

Now.  In the interest of full disclosure, I try to avoid public restrooms in general–because germs, and who doesn’t prefer to poop at home?–but I’m afraid I’m a Christian who won’t be boycotting Target.  The company (and everywhere else I shop) probably espouses all kinds of values related to things I don’t fully 100% agree with.  Lest someone tries to write me off as some sort of heretic (though that is certainly your prerogative), I will also tell you that I think in general, if you were born a man?  You’re a man, and should probably use the restroom with the picture of the man-with-triangular-limbs on the door.  That just seems like common sense to me, and a way of showing respect to us ladies.  Then again, if you appear to be/consider yourself a woman in spite of having been born a man, maybe that changes things.  Basically, if you’re just going in to do your business and using my restroom alleviates your anxiety, it’s fine by me.  Either way, I’ll be in my own stall, with the door locked, peeing.

But more than any of that–and what I’m trying to say here–is that I’m deeply bothered by the Christian demonizing of an entire sub-group of individuals, the painting of transgendered men and women as deviants and terrible people just out looking for someone to hurt.

If you find Target’s restroom policies reprehensible, fine.  I get it.  Use your social media account to explain to your followers why it’s a problem for you, decide what you’re going to do about it, and move on.  No need to disparage men and women who are no doubt just trying to earn a living or buy a throw pillow.  I have actually seen several friends of mine share their views in a respectful way, which I appreciate.  That’s probably why we’re friends.

Incidentally, my twelve-year-old daughter and I stopped at Target a couple of months ago to pick up a gift for a birthday party.  (Don’t worry, I’ve been there several times since then as well.)  As I was paying the cashier for the card game and candy she’d decided upon, my daughter whispered, “Mom!  Is that a boy or a girl over there at that other register?”  When I looked up and saw who she was talking about, my instinct was to laugh and say that OBviously it’s a woman, because can’t you see she has breasts–oh the naivete of children–but then I heard the person speak.  And it was a male voice.  Which is what my daughter had noticed in the first place, and what had led to her confusion.

So as we left the parking lot, my daughter ironically taping a black mustache to her face–that was the theme of the party–I told her that although God makes men and women distinct from one another, and that He makes each of us just the way He wants us, occasionally people aren’t happy with how they were created.  Sometimes it’s kind of mysterious how that happens, other times maybe it’s more clear.  I told her that life can be so hard sometimes, and that teenagers in particular can feel depressed or anxious or a little bit confused about who they are.  And that for some people, living as a different gender than the one God gave them may feel or seem like a good solution.  I said I was pretty sure that the young Target employee had been born male, but somewhere along the way he decided to grow out his hair and obtain a (rather impressive) female-looking chest, and maybe he feels more at ease that way.  Maybe someone told him he should do that, and that it would make everything better, but that I suspect it won’t solve the deeper issues.  I told my daughter that this person probably continues to struggle.  And that all of this can be hard to understand, but that it’s just part of the mixed-up topsy-turvy world we live in, and that God wants us to love everyone.  Especially people prone to feeling unlovable, or who get made fun of, or who don’t fit in a neat little box.  I said we all want to be accepted so very desperately, and that we are so blessed to have our faith and to know we are loved unconditionally by a good and merciful God.

I said that the person we saw was a person.  Period.

Most of you know that I am Catholic.  This means (among other things, like not using birth control and being the proud owner of assorted religious statues) that I believe in the historic teachings of Jesus Christ and His Church.  So I don’t tell my kids that gender is fluid or that sex doesn’t matter.  I don’t personally believe that all manifestations of sexuality or sexual behavior are morally equal, or that consent alone drives whether something is good for a person, family, or society.  Mostly I teach my kids about Jesus and how much He loves them, but I also talk to them about God’s beautiful design for men and women.  I tell them what marriage is and isn’t, and about what our bodies tell us about God’s plan.

But I also make sure to tell them that people are people, and our role as Christians is to love them.

And when it comes to gender, I think we have to fight the temptation to give in to fear.  I didn’t bat an eye for example when my son, at three years old, loved carrying around a purple princess purse, I don’t tend to overemphasize gender differences/roles around our home (every one of my kids can rock both a rake and toilet brush), and I don’t think that gender dysphoria or gender variance ought to relegate a person to the margins of society.  I just don’t.

Hopefully I’ve made it clear here that while I’m saddened by all of the angry rhetoric floating around, I don’t mean to minimize the potential fall-out from these sorts of policies (where the aforementioned creeps now have legal license to hang out in the women’s restroom), and I especially don’t mean to trivialize the related issue of school locker rooms.  I would not, for example, allow my daughters to undress in the presence of boys (regardless how they identify), and vice-versa.  I think there are real concerns here that should be addressed.  But we can do that without all the fear and suspicion, and approach the situation with respect and consideration for both women and people identifying as transgender.  We can be Christians who listen and who love.

At least, in my unprofessional-because-I-dropped-out-of-school-and-had-babies-instead opinion, I certainly think so.

On Answering Questions (About My Large Family)

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My three-year-old, Alice, has pretty much the sweetest relationship with her six-year-old sister Tigist.  When the bus arrives at our house each morning, Alice waves Tigist off for the day–and when the bus returns in the afternoon, Alice races towards the street to greet her as I shout WAIT FOR THE BUS TO STOP FIRST!!!  A couple of days ago, I caught the girls playing Duck Duck Goose on our trampoline, just the two of them giggling in the sunshine, happily taking turns when it came to who was supposed to be “it.”

Tigist of course has Trisomy 21, otherwise known as Down syndrome.  For her this has manifested itself in heart defects, developmental delays, challenges when it comes to communicating, and significant sensory processing issues.  She is really a fun and happy kid at home most of the time, loves to dance and can rock a cartwheel, but definitely also has her struggles.  And, Alice doesn’t care.  About any of it.  Not only is Tigist her sister, she also happens to be Alice’s best friend.

And so lately they’ve taken to holding hands when we arrive for Mass, and then on the walk from Mass to the parish hall for donuts afterwards.  They have a general history of jockeying for who exactly is herding whom when it comes to navigating parking lots, but these days they seem content walking along, side-by-side, hand-in-hand, together.

Moments like that make me feel like maybe our crazy, gigantic family is doing okay, and like maybe it really is acceptable to have a crazy, gigantic family in the first place.  To be honest, I’m not entirely sure why everyone finds crazy, gigantic families quite so intriguing (how many kids do you want?  are you done having kids?  when do you find time to sleep?!), but if the number of questions I get when I’m out in public with my children is any indication, folks are pretty much all-out captivated by this subject.

The worst, I must confess, is when people assume that because I have a large family, I must REALLY REALLY care about the number of children they have–when they seem defensive I want to say, um, I’m too busy pushing a rug in my stroller to even notice, much less formulate some type of opinion, when it comes to your personal life choices.

What I think is at the bottom of a lot of these queries and assumptions, though, is the million dollar question of: Why do you choose to have a lot of kids when most people don’t do that, and when it’s much easier not to?  And also, Why are the children you presently have somehow not enough?  And as hard as it is to have your life, sexuality, and parenting choices under the microscope every single time you pull out of your driveway in your screams-homeschooling-and-denim-jumper-wearing 15-passenger van, I kind of get it.  We’re weird.  We have four transracially adopted children in addition to our four biological children, we have two daughters with Down syndrome, and I am presently hugely pregnant–the latter being a dead giveaway that in spite of all the little people distributing raspberry jelly onto ALL OF THE WALLS and peeing in their pants, my husband and I are apparently still throwing caution to the wind, and eschewing what are presumed to be Responsible Things When It Comes to Adulting.  Like condoms.

Of course there was probably a time in history when you could have just dismissively shrugged your shoulders and said “Oh, we’re Catholic”, and people would nod knowingly while secretly giving thanks for their own birth-control-embracing religious tradition.  But the time for that has passed, because a lot of Catholics today do utilize contraception.  And so it seems strangely empty to the average Costco shopper for a person like me to explain away my sample-consuming, shopping-cart-clinging gaggle of kids with a simple religious label.  (Turns out that most of these people are also not interested in a mini-lesson on the history of Christianity, or in a philosophical discussion about the true aims of feminism and the ironic suppression of the healthy female body.  They just want to buy their toilet paper and cheese.  Go figure.)

And in any case, when it comes to being open to having children?  There are really a million reasons why it can potentially be a Really Good Thing–dogmas and doctrines related to words like “magisterium”, “infallible”, and “apostolic succession” aside.  These are the things I think about most often these days, and the reasons I tend to offer to people when they ask me questions in the bread aisle.

Before I go any further, though, no–I’m not suggesting that it’s ever a good thing to saddle women with unbearable burdens, nor am I meaning to say that kids will somehow magically repair a broken marriage or that people living in difficult marriages should keep on keepin’ on in the being-sexually-active-while-ovulating department, as if more babies will automatically equal more love, respect, or a healthier relationship.  Babies ought to be the fruit and sign of love, and ideally an opportunity for an increase in love between spouses, but that is a different thing.  Nor am I saying that quality of life doesn’t matter or that assorted circumstances shouldn’t be taken into account.  People who fail to see these distinctions, and many do, misunderstand what Catholics in the bread aisle believe.  But now we’re veering off towards the afore-mentioned Doctrine Land.  Anyway.

The truth is that in spite of my core beliefs about marriage and children and the gift of new life (based upon what I believe is God’s design and intention for humankind, as reflected in Catholic doctrine), I did used to occasionally worry about the ramifications of my kids having so many brothers and sisters.  I did not personally grow up with siblings, and therefore have no frame of reference whatsoever for: squabbles over who gets to pour the morning’s breakfast cereal, riding in an embarrassingly large car, or sharing a bedroom.  I did not have the experiences of getting thrown up on in my sleep or of being supervised at recess by a bossy older-brother-turned-recess-monitor, who wears a neon vest and gossips like an old woman with my friends.

So, yeah.  I would have these twinges of Oh my goodness we are RUINING THE CHILDREN every now and again, and I would picture eerily quiet future holidays where, in spite of having so many kids, my husband and I are left to eat a thirty-pound turkey and our mashed potatoes alone–because the poor adult children remain so dang traumatized by all of the poop, or by the time so-and-so pushed too many buttons and got stuck in an elevator, or when so-and-so got left–briefly!–at home, by accident.  Forget saving up for their college funds–we should really be preparing for their impending therapy bills and eventual lawsuits.

But as my kids are getting a little bit older, I’m worrying less and less about this depressingly bleak holiday scenario.  These days I’m much more inclined instead to chalk stuff up to this is just the reality of life in a family, and won’t this make for a funny story later.  I see way too many positives to dwell much on the negatives.  I see the self-confidence with which my six-year-old carries herself, and how when she tries new things, a bunch of siblings cheer her on; I see the way my eleven-year-old goes out of his way to make sure his younger sister makes it to the right classroom for play practice; I see how all the faces light up when we remember when such-and-such happened–the time that typically mild-mannered sister threw a huge temper tantrum in a crowded food court, the day we had a fender-bender and had to sit, sweating, by the side of the hot highway, or the night I went into labor with our sweet Alice, and we roused kids to join us at the hospital for the birth.  I see how those same kids still talk about how incredible it was witnessing their beloved sister come into the world.  I see how my bigger kids gush over how far their sisters with special needs have come, and I see how four of my children, the ones who had lost most of their family and cultural roots, are building new ones.  That grow deeper every single day.  It’s no replacement certainly, but I figure it’s at least something.  I see the friendships, ups and downs, and maybe best of all, the great capacity for love, even among the littlest of hearts.

We are, of course, not a perfect family.  And I credit God with any good or beauty around these here parts, because most days I honestly have no clue what the heck I’m doing.  I don’t read parenting books for one thing (maybe that’s my problem?), and I swear I’ll be lucky to make it to forty years old, because these kids keep me more than a little bit busy and more than a little bit crazy.  But, you know, it’s like I tell people all the time: It’s wild but it’s also pretty fun.  And it’s worth it.  The diapers, the mishaps, the humiliations.  The encounters at the grocery store with scandalized onlookers, the places I don’t go because I know I won’t be able to park my van without crashing into another car, the nights I fall into bed and yell to my husband JUST TURN THE TV ON SO I DON’T HAVE TO THINK ANYMORE AND SO I CAN PRETEND I’M IN THE FBI.

All of it.  Worth it.

But it’s decidedly hard to convey that to someone in twenty five words or less, whilst loading your cart with fruit and frozen green beans.  It’s a lot easier to just say I’m one of those weirdo antiquated papists, or that hormonal birth control just about near ruined my life once upon a time, or that yes indeed I am running a daycare.  And yet I think what people are really, truly wanting to know is if it’s possible to find happiness as a mother.  If the things we do in the quiet and unseen spaces of our lives are enough to sustain and fulfill.  We are tempted to think that if we can just move on to bigger, better, and less mundane activities, then our lives will finally begin in earnest.  But what being a mom-to-many has taught me so far is that life is lived now, today, right here.  It’s taught me that relationships are what matter above all else.  And that love can look a lot of ways–it can be noisy, messy, small, or darn near imperceptible.  I’ve learned that some of the sweetest victories will seem like no big deal to other people, and that what I do isn’t as important as who I am.

For all the different perspectives on family planning–and on whether or not old, religious, celibate men ought to have a perspective on family planning–it’s intangible stuff like this that makes me grateful for my many children.  It’s stuff that the average onlooker doesn’t see all of the time, it’s stuff that no doctrinal statement can quite fully capture, and it’s stuff that would slip right past me had I not made a conscious decision to watch for it.  It is not, and has never been, about numbers, cult-like adherence to man-made rules, or a full quiver.  It IS about love, togetherness, and an openness to looking life (and in my case, womanhood)–with all of its rich facets, defects, and joys–square in the face and saying yes.  To all of the things.  To love.

I suppose that is what all of those stuffy encyclicals, and writings by early church fathers with funny names, are trying to say.  They’re easily dismissed nowadays because they seem largely irrelevant to people in our culture in general–much less to frantic mothers just trying to survive until bedtime.  But I think those guys were on to something, because my personal experience has confirmed time and again that the things that grow out of a family are, indeed, very good things.  So I will continue guiding and nurturing and cleaning, occasionally yelling, and mostly just living.  And when someone asks me about my my many kids, well, I’ll tell them the truth.  Yes, we’re Catholic.  And yes these kids are crazy and messy and noisy and silly, but they’re pretty amazing too, and they’re the best of friends.  And it’s worth it.

On pushing a rug in a stroller

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When you find an area rug at the mall and you’re with two kids and a stroller, you kick the kids out and push the rug. Obvs.

 

Another week (or two), another unintentional break from blogging.

Of course I haven’t been on any exotic vacations or doing any exciting things, mind you, just incubating the baby and wrapping up our kitchen remodel–which would have been wrapped up long ago, save for the incompetence of multiple companies, leading to a months-long delay in getting us our faux-wood beam.  I am nearly certain the thing is cursed at this point, all nineteen-plus feet of it.

I am also nearly certain that I am suffering from a severe case of decision fatigue.  Every time I think I won’t need to make any more choices about height, spacing, color, or dimmers vs. non-dimmers, up crops a situation necessitating my input.  Not that I’m complaining, because my kitchen is gorgeous, and is going to be super functional, and I absolutely cannot wait to get all moved in.  But I’m pregnant, and I’m tired.  So yeah.

I have taken on a fun new project as of late, which I’m excited about in my own “I’m-probably-too-tired-to-be-excited” sort of way.  I am now officially a blogger for the National Catholic Register!  I’ve published two articles there so far–please feel free to take a look!  I’m also attempting to submit more of my freelance work to various publications, though it can be tricky writing in the mornings with a chatty three-year-old underfoot.  Plus I have no dedicated office space right now (though that will change once we demo our present kitchen and convert the space into an entryway/office), so my choices are to write: from my bed (what usually ends up happening and what occasionally leads to watching shows on Amazon or taking a nap instead), our dwelling-in-the-kitchen picnic table, the couch in the dark and depressing downstairs playroom (where a former resident’s cat with a bleeding face used to live, and which triggers my adult-onset cat allergies), or the ping-pong table down in the dungeon (aka basement), where a former owner’s casino sign–it reads “Beat the Dealer”–hangs on the wall.

Now you totally want to visit my house.  I know you do.

Of course once our kitchen project’s all done I’ll have my family room back, and then at that point I’ll probably work/watch TV/sleep from there.

What else is there to report?  Well, not a whole lot.  Just plugging along in life, I’d say.  My kids are presently involved in what feels like a mad number of extracurricular activities–from drama to geography club to soccer–and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I am SO READY FOR SUMMER.  Not that long days with everyone at home aren’t challenging either.  Hmmmm.

Speaking of challenging, I am having a heck of a time choosing throw pillows for my new dark brown leather couches, and this is exacerbated by the fact that I am also having a heck of a time choosing an area rug for the same room.

Bought a dark grey one last week that is nice, but after laying it out and living with it for a couple of days I decided it didn’t look so good with the couches or the pretty white mantle and shelving my contractor built for me.  Then yesterday afternoon I had to go pick up a freezer part from an out-of-the-way Subzero warehouse (hashtag things-you-do-when-you-buy-used-appliances), which happened to be near a mall, so I stopped at the mall.

Of course I made sure to bring my stroller for Alice this time because, well, read the link.  Anyway.  I found an area rug there that I thought could maybe actually work (I need something fairly light in color, but also something to hide ALL OF THE DIRT), but I had no cart because I had the stroller instead.  Alice had of course long since vacated the stroller, in order to rip the tags off a stuffed pig (other shenanigans of the day included wearing a pair of sunglasses out of a store, only to be discovered after we’d already walked a fair distance away).  So I decided to utilize the stroller to push the rug.

See photo above.

Unfortunately, though, our car was parked quite a ways from the Super Target where I got the rug, and so necessitated our traipsing across parking lots and around various delivery trucks.  At one point we had to cut across a curb and through the dirt, temporarily losing the rug in the process.  But not to worry, because we eventually arrived at our car and then to our home–only to discover our beam had, finally, been delivered.

Just another day of living the dream.

I don’t know about you, but I do a lot of laughing at myself these days.  Being a mom is kind of no joke, except that mostly it really kind of is a joke.  A big, fat joke.  You do weird stuff and your kids do weird stuff, and life looks all messy to people on the outside, people who no doubt saw a pregnant lady pushing a rug in a stroller with two little blonde girls in tow and probably thought: What is wrong with that lady, why doesn’t she have a proper cart, and why does she take her kids to the store only for them to steal bright pink, star-shaped sunglasses and tear the tags off inanimate porcine creatures?

And if they actually said what they were thinking aloud, I would laugh and reply, “Those are good questions.  There is probably plenty wrong with me, but what first comes to mind is that I cannot find the right throw pillows to complement my dark couches.  Also my wrist still kind of hurts from when I tripped at my kid’s soccer game Monday night, but that is another story for another time.  The reason I don’t have a cart is because I have a stroller, because the last time I came here without a stroller my kid spilled her lemonade and slipped and fell in Chinese chicken grease.  I brought these kids along because I rather enjoy the company of my kids, and when you have eight of them, hanging out with just two feels like a real vacation.  It’s apparently worth enduring things like temporary theft and petty vandalism to find good bargains at the Gap.”  Then I would resume pushing my rug through the parking lot, and hissing at the children to stay away from the loading dock.

In any case, don’t believe the lie that being an at-home mother is boring, a waste of time, or mutually exclusive with owning cute rugs.  The key to survival, I suspect, is making peace with who you are, one stretch mark and embarrassing outing at a time.

Then you can laugh at stuff and not let it bother you so much.  You can browse around multiple stores with your kids during the day, in an effort to find cute cardigans and the perfect rug for all those little feet racing around your house.  And you can order ginormous and over-priced fake pieces of wood that never seem to arrive, until you pull into your driveway and see that they have.

On Braving the Blizzard, ADHD, and the Hard Work of Love

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Sure it’s March and all of that, but in true Denver style, I woke up to a blizzard yesterday morning–that and what sounded like wild horses galloping across my bedroom ceiling.  More raccoons?  I don’t think so, because the movements and noises aren’t the same (namely no skittering, sliding or chattering), plus we’ve sealed everything off.  A website my husband found said something about potential possums (or is it opossoms?), and also something about feral pigs.  Based on the level of noise, I’m rolling with the pigs.

Oh and while I’m on the subject of early morning shenanigans, To Whom It May Concern at Jefferson County School District: I did not need the 5:50 am telephone call (and resulting combination of adrenaline rush/pregnant bladder control test) saying that district transportation and enrichment activities were cancelled for the day.  It’s SPRING BREAK, for goodness’ sake.  And, you know, a blizzard.  And it’s hard enough to get a good night’s sleep around here as it is, without you calling and waking me up on what is already a non-school day.

Adding to the morning’s excitement was the fact that I had to venture out in the blizzard to drive my dear husband to the mechanic’s shop, to pick up his antique of a commuter car.  1988 was a good year for Toyota Corollas, apparently, because the little family car my parents bought when I was six years old is still alive and kicking, and getting my husband to work each day.  Well, almost each day–he ran into some problems on Monday morning, hence the need for the repairs.  Hashtag living-with-an-old-car.  The repairs, because I’m sure you’re dying to know, totaled $10.  The legend of the Corolla lives on.

Now in spite of the blowing snow, that little trip was mostly uneventful (what’s a little fish-tailing between friends?), and I hoped my next blizzard excursion would follow suit.  Yes, in spite of the district’s urgent weather warnings, I had to leave my house for a second time that day–because I’d scheduled an evaluation for one of my dear children in conjunction with some recent academic assessments he’d been given.  Long story short this child has ADHD, which we’ve known for a long time, but we are just now seeking a formal medical diagnosis.  Why did we wait so long, you may ask?  Well, the last time I attempted to discuss this with a physician I was matter-of-factly informed that ADHD is overblown, and kids just know how to push their parents’ buttons.  Which may very well be the case, except that it wasn’t so much him pushing my buttons as his perpetually struggling to focus, and to keep track of his socks.  The truth is that he has all kinds of risk factors for the condition, meets the criteria, and now his school evaluations all point to the same thing.  Good, old-fashioned, overblown ADHD (inattentive type, for the most part.)

What we’re seeing these days is that he’s a good kid with a good behavior record at school, compliant and friendly and genuine and caring.  But his brain works a little differently than most, and as a result he really faces some challenges in the classroom.  On the other hand, he has some really fantastic strengths, some of which are the direct result of said brain and said ADHD.  I point this out, lest we focus only on the negative, which I refuse to do–because did I mention this is one heck of a great kid?  In our former life as a homeschoolers, a formal diagnosis wasn’t so necessary, but my son is in school now and scores too high to qualify for an IEP…so he has to access accommodations through something called a 504 Plan.  And needs a medical diagnosis to do so.

And that is why a blizzardy morning found us setting off for the doctor’s office, amidst the wind and snow, in our trusty minivan.  Which incidentally performs terribly in the snow but, you know, details.  It came as no surprise, then, and quickly became clear that the typically three-minute drive down the street to the pediatrician’s office was going to be filled with much sliding and little traction–and then there was a faulty red light that refused to turn green, and which we eventually decided to drive/slip through anyhow, traffic laws be darned.  My poor son must have cried “BE CAREFUL MOM!” at least a dozen times, but at least he laughed when we tried to move forward but couldn’t because we were stuck.  Through a miracle of sorts (is there a patron saint of stupidly leaving your house when you should be staying home?  getting long-overdue help for over-diagnosed medical conditions?  families with wildlife living in their attic?) we did somehow manage to become unstuck, and inch our way through the red light and intersection–only to skid past what should have been the turn into the appropriate parking lot.  Darn.  Not to worry, though–just some circling around and more warnings from my son and, somehow, someway, we found ourselves parking in a real and legitimate parking space, and trudging into the building.

Oh, and meanwhile some sub-contractors had shown up to my house somewhat unexpectedly, throwing the young babysitter off-guard.  Who called me while I was stuck in the snow and ice, at the red light, saying there was some dude in the house.  They also said he had a beer in his hand when he showed up at the door at 8:45 in the morning, which added to their concerns, but turns out it was just an energy drink.  Good times.

But, you know, we saw the doctor.  She spent so much time with us, had a really positive outlook, and supplied me with the necessary forms for obtaining the diagnosis.  We have set things in motion and have a plan for going forward.  Hopefully we’ll be in a really good place by the time my son begins middle school (!) next year.  For the first time ever, really, I feel like we have some allies when it comes to his health, education, and general well-being.

Parenting is a long and, dare I say, arduous road.  Maybe it’s just the harrowing morning I’d had or the lack of sleep talking, but boy things can get real complicated real fast!  We do our best to nurture and love our children when they’re small through hugs and cuddles and the copious distribution of band-aids, but then they get bigger, and their problems get bigger too.  As they transition into the tweens and beyond, our role as advocate seems to become more important than ever, as we have to make tough decisions about school and medication and friends and who knows what all else.

PLEASE let there not be anything else.

I’m reading a memoir right now (in all my spare time, when I’m not changing diapers or fish-tailing across the front range), written by a father detailing his journey through his son’s drug addiction.  Beautiful Boy is heart-wrenching, honest, and disturbingly real.  It is not so hard to imagine living author David Sheff’s experience, not even a little bit, because above all he is a parent who loves his son.  Desperately.  Just like I love my children.  And in the face of inevitable stigma and judgement that has always seemed to attach itself to the subject of addiction, Sheff shares his story–not his son’s story so much as his own painful experience–in hopes of helping others.  What I’ve been thinking about since beginning the book is, simply, that love is hard work.  You can’t control every single little thing in your kids’ lives.  You can’t make all of their choices for them, you can’t prevent them from engaging with a world filled with Very Sad And Dangerous Things, and you can’t change their brain chemistry.  What you CAN do is love. Guide.  Instruct.  Explain.  Advocate.  Facilitate.  Pray.

And, you can daily place your faith in a God who is weaving together not only your life but their life, too.  He is a God who promises to make all things new and exchange beauty for ashes.  He is a God who gives us hope.

In so many ways, my children grow more and more independent with each passing year.  It is bittersweet, to be sure, the slipping away of time and silly daily rituals, like eating goldfish crackers and watching the Wiggles. But in others?  Don’t tell my kids I said this, but I think they need me even more.  Their questions, worries, and challenges loom larger than ever these days, it seems.

And so I navigate, ever so clumsily, things like 504 Plans, and meetings around a big table with multiple school employees, where everyone sits and talks about my son.  I find myself braving an all-out blizzard and the notorious-for-getting-stuck Wadsworth/Jefferson intersection, with my son, to get him help.  He likes the doctor, he says, “because she’s nice”, and he also says he likes these little outings with me.  When I white-knuckle the steering wheel and tell him to pray we don’t have to abandon our car in the middle of the road, he cheerfully assures me it’s not such a far walk back to our house.  When we do finally arrive home (via automobile, thank goodness) an hour and a half later, he rounds up his siblings for a rousing game of dice–or three, it turns out, because we’re having so much fun.

In between rolls and keeping score, I sit and wonder what life would be like if my son’s brain worked differently than it does, if he hadn’t spent eighteen months living in orphanages and going hungry, if he hadn’t been hospitalized for pneumonia and parasites and eventually diagnosed with having failure to thrive.

If he wasn’t a kid from a hard place.

In my heart of hearts, I know it’s very likely that he’d need less help with his fifth-grade reading and writing assignments. He’d probably navigate relationships, schoolwork, and activities with greater ease and consistency.  He would be able to remember exactly where he put his shin guards after last week’s practice, wouldn’t feel the need to construct stories to fill in the gaps of what he doesn’t know but knows he should, and could more accurately assess the risks and consequences associated with the daily adventures of an eleven-year-old boy.

But then it frightens me to think that he wouldn’t be the boy that I know, either.  He might not be as generally friendly and outgoing, or as inclined to look out for his buddies.  Maybe not as willing to engage his little sister in a game of dollhouse, or as resilient to schoolyard bullying and teasing.  His infectious smile, ready enthusiasm, and ability to overlook an insult would most likely be, at the very least, different.  It is highly possible that his self-esteem and self-confidence–which are ever-brimming to the point that I am convinced they are wholly impenetrable–would be diminished.

Of course, these are all things that I can never know for sure, because love it or hate it, this is my son’s journey.  You only get one life, one shot, and his includes a very difficult early beginning–with an ensuing set of challenges to overcome.  These things may take a lifetime, but he remains undaunted and, as his mother, I will not give up either.  I will continue advocating, learning, and loving.  I will cheer his successes, show him how to pick up any broken pieces, and facilitate his healing.  I will show up to the big table and pursue a good and fair education for him, because he is so very capable and can go on to do great things.  I can’t (and won’t!) live his life for him, but I am his adoptive mother.  And so I will do my very best to do right by God, by my son’s first mother, and by my son.

Who jumps and shouts excitedly when he beats me–at the eleventh hour and by a narrow margin, no less–at our game of dice.  In a subsequent game he’ll do much worse and finish in last place, groaning good-naturedly and saying how bad he is, but in this particular moment–he’s always in this particular moment–he couldn’t be happier.

Forms to be filled out by teachers and parents, and brochures about therapies and medications, cover the nearby desk.  I figure they can wait, because the day’s battles were already fought and, on this day anyhow, won.  Feral pigs didn’t fall through my ceiling, I got my husband to his car and off to another day’s work, my son and I (and our minivan) survived a harrowing trek to and from the doctor’s office, and my family spent the rest of the day playing games and laughing.

Until after dinnertime.  Which was when I got really tired, declared that I’d had enough of this day, and shouted for everyone to go to bed.

Life is a journey.

ADHD is something, but it’s not everything.

Love is hard work.

Bridging the Gap Between School and Home

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Last fall, we placed our children in traditional schools for the very first time.

Up until that point, we’d been homeschoolers.  We homeschooled, in fact, for five years.

Which is really a pretty long time because in some ways I think homeschooling years are maybe a little bit like dog years.  They count for more.  It’s a lot of effort, and the kids are, you know, always there–I never gave it a whole lot of thought except for the time someone asked me how I, as an introvert, manage staying sane and healthy when I’m always around so many people.  She had a good point.  I wasn’t really sure, but I told her that I did enforce naps and quiet times each afternoon, which helped a lot.  And really, it did.

What I discovered, though, towards the end of our homeschooling journey was that as my kids got older, those small daily reprieves simply were not enough.  The constant activity and “being around eight people”, coupled with the mental and emotional burden of educating six of them–three of whom have significant learning disabilities–was just too much. I wasn’t enjoying it anymore.  I COULD do it, but I didn’t want to.  And frankly, I wasn’t doing it particularly well in many respects.  My children deserved more.  So we placed them in school.

Insert deep breath.  Cue the band.  Release the balloons.

We (mostly) love school!

But I will tell you that after so many years of having them home I honestly wasn’t sure how to navigate this transition for our family. It had always been just Mom and siblings during the day, but now they’d have school friends I didn’t know, additional authority figures in their lives, homework, and a real honest-to-goodness schedule, not just the loose hourly one I’d come up with every year, spend a few weeks scrambling and yelling to enforce, and eventually drop because it stressed me out.

Initially, the switch was very hard.  I knew our home life and family time were super important, but how should it fit with what was happening during the other eight hours a day?  Faith was at the center of our lives and always had been, but how do you encourage and nurture that in the few waking hours the kids are with you?  Plus now they were regularly encountering fellow students with vastly different situations, beliefs, and standards at home, and it seemed like we were having a lot of conversations about how and why we do things the way we do things.  I’d say I never doubted our decision to stop homeschooling, except I totally did and pulled my kids back out.  For a week.  Basically until I got over a horrible upper respiratory virus (that had clearly clouded my vision) and looked around at all the same problems that had compelled me to put them in school in the first place, completely freaked out because WHAT HAVE I DONE, and emailed the sweet principal asking if we might be able to return.

That was embarrassing.

If I’m honest, it really wasn’t just my failing health that led to my wishy-washy, back and forth-ness.  It was this transitory period, too, the difficult process of figuring out all this new stuff and attempting to find our family’s footing again.  Who are we when homeschooling is not part of our identity?  How do we carry our family’s values into the school-day?  Add to that the pressure of belonging to a circle of Catholics who really prized homeschooling. Thankfully we didn’t give up because, in the end, traditional schooling has been so very good for all of us. Really.  Every last one of us.

So I’m sharing some things today that have helped me and my family maintain our sense of stability, and retain the values and priorities that are important to us as Catholics.  Hopefully this will be helpful for folks also making the transition, or who have already made it.  Homeschooling seems to have grown quite a bit among Catholics by the way–when we joined the Church four years ago, we only encountered fellow homeschoolers for the most part, which struck me as interesting because historically it’s definitely been more of a Protestant thing.  And I’ve found that when homeschooling is at least partially driven by religious motivation, it’s extra hard to walk away.  And while it really was a good fit for our family in the early years, when it ceased to be, I’m glad we felt the freedom to try something new.

1. Remember that there are good people at work in the schools.  

Two of our daughters have Down syndrome, and they were the first of our kids (by about a month) to enter the school system.  So theirs was the first experience we’d had with teachers, paraprofessionals, and special education providers.  And oh my goodness–I was floored.  Astounded, really.  These people were caring, respectful, friendly, and kind.  They worked crazy hard and had huge hearts for my daughters and our family.  After overhearing so many snarky, negative comments about public school teachers for so many years, I discovered that all of that was pretty much wrong.  We have been so blessed by all of our kids’ teachers, administrators, and bus drivers.  These people are there because they want to be, investing in my children and inspiring them to do and be their best.  I tell my kids to respect and treat these people well, because they work so very hard.

2. Be present in the schoolbuilding. 

It can be hard to figure out how much involvement a parent ought to have in what their kids do.  I’m not a helicopter mom by any means–even if I wanted to be I really can’t, because I just have too many dang kids–but sending them off into a schoolbuilding with a bunch of strangers felt wrong, too.  I was able to meet teachers and principals prior to the first day of school, which helped, but I knew I wanted a little more of a presence there on campus, too.  It’s good for my kids to see and know that I’m comfortable moving in and out of their world, and for them to realize they won’t be getting away with anything because I’m on the same page as their teachers.  I’ve been a room mom for one child’s class since last year, I attend parent/teacher conferences, I’ve chaperoned on several field trips, and just last week I attended a middle school social.  If it sounds like all of this is very time-consuming, it really isn’t.  Most days my only contact with the school is the car line.  But those little visits here and there really go a long way towards establishing a more seamless connection between home and school, for all of us.

3. Develop relationships with teachers, administrators, and staff members.

This is yet another benefit (and natural result) of being physically present in the school.  It has been really quite beneficial for me to get to know the many people working with my kids.  Not only do you wind up meeting some pretty fantastic professionals, you also set your child up for the best possible educational experience.  There was a situation at the beginning of this year, where one of my children had a pretty horrible thing happen at school.  Things really escalated to the point where this child completely flipped out and shut down, something very out of character for her, and I received a phone call about it from the teacher.  Now this teacher was brand new at the school and we’d not yet met, so I felt frustrated and helpless because it just seemed like she’d made up her mind about things.  I wondered if this might be a horrible fit for my kids.  But over the course of the year, through meetings, a field trip, and conferences, I have come to really respect and like this person.  A lot.  Plus my kids are thriving.  She and I get along quite well.  I also have good relationships with the other people working with my many kids–the clinic aid, receptionists, teachers, principals, reading specialists, etc.  They know me, I know them, and I’m confident that if something arises?  We can work it out together, with the best interests of my kids at heart.  We are on the same side, because we have a positive relationship based on mutual respect.

4. Meet other parents.

When we were homeschooling, I belonged to various co-ops and enrichment programs throughout the years.  I had many close friends in these groups, and I knew all the parents of my kids’ friends.  As you can imagine, sending my babies off to traditional schools was a big shift in this regard.  I really didn’t know a whole lot of anyone!  I felt a little disoriented and nervous, as a result.  And I wanted to meet other parents, so we made sure to attend a family picnic right before school started.  I struck up conversations with people at class parties and on field trips.  I started a very small meetup for moms and dads, where we got together before school one morning each month.  And, guess what?  I’ve met some really great people as a result!  These parents are passionate about their kids’ educations, and want pretty much all the same things I want.  Plus it’s good to have fellow friends in the trenches, it allows for the comparing notes, and it’s a wonderful way to engage with your neighborhood and community.

5. Confront problems in a timely manner with openness, vulnerability, and a long view.

As happy as I am to be sending my kids to traditional schools (one is a neighborhood school, and the other a classical charter school), I’m not gonna lie: sometimes stuff happens.  Hard stuff.  Overwhelming stuff.  But if I’m honest, stuff used to happen at home, too, and even a normal day could be pretty draining.  Now though, most of my days have lots of margin, my kids are so happy, and they’re learning a TON.  So even with the occasional bad thrown in, I figure we’re still winning.  Not that dealing with hard things is particularly fun for me.  I have had to have difficult conversations with administrators and teachers.  I have had to advocate for my kids.  Most recently I had to contact the school’s director with my concerns regarding some safety loopholes in the technology at school.  I detest confrontation and I’ve really had to do some growth in this area, because my tendency is to become VERY ANXIOUS IF SOMETHING IS GOING WRONG WITH MY KID.  But do you know what?  I’m getting a lot better at this.  I’m learning to address things right away, that you can communicate honestly and directly without coming across as a jerk, and that advocating for your child is NOT the same as making excuses or being demanding.  Because I have relationships with staff members at the schools, we can engage in these conversations believing the best about one another.  Benefit of the doubt and all that.  When I go in for a meeting or conference now, I feel a bit more confident knowing that we can work together to get things solved.  As an example, about a month ago or so, I met with a learning specialist about some ongoing academic struggles one of my children is having.  I was terrified she might minimize my concerns, or attempt to blame this child’s challenges on a conscious decision to be lazy.  But no.  She is well-versed in the particular things he deals with, affirmed what I’ve been thinking all this time, and has been doing some assessments with him.  Which he’s actually really enjoyed.  I’m so glad we had the meeting, and I’ll be seeing her again today to discuss the results and a plan for going forward.

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Hopefully this was helpful for you!  Do you have anything you’d add?  We have seen benefits to both homeschooling and traditional schooling and, ultimately, there is no perfect, fool-proof method for raising happy, holy, well-adjusted and well-educated kids. Bummer, right?  Well, maybe not.  Because this also means that we have the delightful freedom to try different things, and in the end know that God is there regardless.  Loving and guiding us.  No need to be afraid or paralyzed by fear.  And that right there, not unlike my semi-quiet home on weekdays during the school year, is good news!

 

Suffering and the Special Child

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Visits from siblings in the ICU, after open heart surgery. Beauty amidst suffering.

 

When I wrote last month about how isolating it can be when you’re raising a child with special needs, I hadn’t imagined the simultaneously beautiful and heartbreaking response I’d receive from readers.

It turns out a lot of women are feeling alone.  It turns out a lot of women have felt rejected by friends, family, and neighbors.  It turns out a lot of people are lonely for friendship, acceptance, and support.

Frankly, much of what I heard really bothered me.

As I read the emails, private messages, and comments, the theme that kept coming to mind was the idea of suffering. Yes, suffering, which sounds fairly dramatic but is more than appropriate to this context.  A lot of families suffer through the pain of diagnoses, surgeries, behaviors, destruction, financial strain, school issues, and therapies.  On a regular basis.  But on top of all of that, what might hurt just as much or even more, is loneliness.

To be lonely is to suffer, too.

When we adopted our sons from Ethiopia in early 2006, we were in our mid-twenties.  Few of our friends had children yet, much less adopted children.  We were definitely fortunate to have good friends who were incredibly supportive, adopted kids or not, but I also found myself grateful for the online friendships we forged, with parents on the same crazy journey as us, during that time.  Then some of those people became dear “in real life” friends when we moved to Denver in 2008, which was fantastic in part because transracial adoption became very normalized for our kids.

None of us felt alone.

I remember, in fact, pulling up to my brother-in-law and sister-in-law’s home in a nearby suburb one evening, and a little boy was playing out front.  He was presumably a neighbor, and he was Asian (and my in-laws are not), and my kids excitedly cried, “Did Uncle Mike and Aunt Rachel adopt?!”  (I should clarify here that my kids do NOT assume that all children of color are adopted.  Just that a child of color outside of a white family’s home very well could be adopted, because doesn’t everybody adopt?)

The same is more or less true for our family’s experience with medical needs and developmental delays.  When my Ethiopian daughters joined our family four years ago, they not only had Down syndrome but also some profound delays related to institutionalization.  And, heart defects.  Pretty significant ones, too.  This necessitated their having heart procedures in the catheterization lab of the children’s hospital on the same day, and then open heart surgery for sweet Mekdes one month later.  In seemingly no time at all I’d become intimately acquainted with heart surgeons, anesthesiologists, and medical assistants in the cardiac clinic.  And normally these experiences–the agony of having your child put on a bypass machine while they open her chest, signing my name to things saying there was a real risk of death, and spending the night on a bed in the Cardiac ICU with a child nearby hooked up to all kinds of tubes–would have set us apart, further isolated our family, and ultimately led to a sort of loneliness.  Because really, who else does that?

But, we were part of a community of families with adopted children, many of whom were medically fragile as well.

Of course not everyone has that sort of support network.  And navigating medical or special needs is hard, period, even when you do.  But especially when you don’t.  There are things the average person might not understand, or for lack of a better way of saying it, be able to put up with.  I think it’s not uncommon for folks to have a hard time relating to you–maybe your parenting strategies are different or your child acts out, or your struggles are unique.  Maybe people wonder why you can’t just get your act together, or think that if only you’d ________ (insert words like “discipline”, “be consistent”, or “love them”) more, things would be better.

The sad irony is that these lonely mothers in the trenches, the ones that get the side-eye from other moms at the park when their child is tantruming or refusing to get back in the car, tend to make fabulously wonderful friends.  They are often compassionate, empathetic, and understanding.  They get it, all of it.  They know it’s hard and that we’re all doing our very best.

But oftentimes they suffer alone.  Sometimes their marriages are suffering too, buckling under the crushing weight of logistics and outbursts and what-do-we-do-now’s?  They love their kids, but why do things have to be so hard?

For whatever reason, we here in the good ol’ US of A don’t like to talk much about suffering.  We want everyone to be happy all the time, we believe we should be happy all the time, and we’re willing to do what it takes to achieve that end.  And don’t get me wrong–I’m really a very happy person.  I’m an optimist.  I loved that TV show Call the Midwife, but it was too stressful for me to watch right before bed–I like things that make me laugh, or offer an escape.  I’ve mercifully never been clinically depressed (knock on wood) and I want others around me to be happy, too.  But oh my goodness, who can deny that life is just plain wrought with suffering sometimes?  Consider that when people seem taken aback that we knowingly adopted children with medical needs and developmental delays, their surprise is not so much because these kids are seen as somehow undesirable or particularly abnormal, but really because it means we signed up to suffer.  We signed up for the cardiology clinic and the long IEP meetings and the will-they-ever-learn-to-use-the-toilet-independently’s.  We signed up for Very Hard Days on the school bus, and for the people who get frustrated because my kid is tackling theirs.

But what most parents in my position would tell you is that while YES, there are Hard Things implicit in raising a precious child with special needs and YES, it amounts to suffering at times, it is no reason to give up, turn away, or not do it in the first place.  And sure, sometimes I wonder what life is like “on the other side”, for folks who:

don’t have eight kids

don’t have two kids with heart problems

don’t have two kids with Down syndrome

don’t have a child with ADHD, dyslexia, and executive functioning issues.

It’s all palm trees and rainbows and cocktails out by the pool, right?  (Probably not.  Everybody has their stuff they struggle with.  But you know what I mean.)

But then I imagine not having these eight beautiful souls in my life, who make me laugh and think and teach me the meaning of courage, kindness, acceptance, and resilience.  I imagine who I might be, were I not impacted by this wild and crazy life the Lord has given me.  And that is a very, very sad picture–palm trees or not.

The honest truth is that four of my kids are survivors.  When they should have been watching Sesame Street and throwing silly tantrums in the shopping cart at the grocery store, they were busy battling malnutrition, pneumonia, institutionalization, and parasites.  It was largely my biological daughter’s existence that inspired our decision to adopt in the first place–she had so very much just by virtue of having a family and a roof over her head.  We knew other children did not, and we thought if not us, then who?  Who will stand up for these vulnerable little ones?  Who will say yes?

Who will enter into their suffering with them, so they don’t have to suffer alone?

This is, I think, the crux of what we do.

Parents, in general, are called to go deep into the life of another to nurture, love, and shape.  This makes me think about the Blessed Virgin Mary.  She knew not only what it was to be a mom in all the little ways, but also to watch a child suffer.  And, she knew what it was to feel isolated in her helplessness and pain.  She couldn’t fix or change things, she could only stand by and weep, and when you consider the obvious uniqueness of her situation, it seems clear that she would have felt dreadfully alone.

Not unlike all of the dear women who reached out to me with their stories.  I wish I could hug each and every one of you and say Yes!  I have been there!  I have gotten the phone call from the teacher, the disapproving look from the fellow mom, the news from the surgeon that a very invasive surgery was necessary and we can’t wait too long.  I have been through all of those things, just like you!  And I have all the same questions about the future, too, like whether some of my kids will still be living with me as adults or what certain behaviors will look like as they enter puberty and beyond.  It’s hard!  Sometimes I think people don’t get it.  But take heart, because you are NOT ALONE.  There are others of us out there to be sure, and we’re cheering you on, but even more than that?  Jesus, and also His Mother, they know allllllllll about suffering.  Way more than any of us, really.  So there is hope.  Always, always hope.  One day there will be no more crying or suffering, but in the meantime, when we do?  We are mysteriously bound up with Christ and His sufferings.  He is there, somehow, in all of it, and working things in our hearts and lives that really, really matter.  Even if it’s awful or we can’t really see what the point of it all is.  It matters.  Infinitely.

And, YOU matter.

Nothing happens, not even one little thing, that God doesn’t see or care very much about.

So I tell myself this in the moments when I think man, this stuff is tough.  Or wow, I hope this all turns out okay in the end.  I tell myself this when I am angry, hurt, or afraid.  I also think about other moms who might need community, desperately, but have a hard time finding it.  I remember I am oh so very blessed to have incredibly dear friends and family in my life, some walking similar roads as me, but then also many who are not, but who get me and love my family just the same.

Each and every parent has their burdens, their challenges, their sorrows.  They also have their joys.  And each is meant to be shared with a good friend.  We can take up the challenge of reaching out and fighting loneliness among mothers–through relationships, coffee dates, smiles, tears, and empathy.  We can listen, and understand.  If we happen to be the lonely ones, we can step out of our comfort zone and extend an invitation to someone.  And I get it, we’re all busy and it’s hard–I have this dumb, plastic picnic table wedged into my kitchen right now so, you know, not the ideal place to entertain guests.  Also, our dishwasher smells bad.

But genuine friendship doesn’t place big, unreasonable demands.

It merely asks for connection.

For a yes.

For a willingness to share the human experience and, by extension, the human experience of suffering.

So please be kind out there, dear friends.  Take heart if you’re raising children from difficult backgrounds, or children going through a tough phase, or children with special needs.  Because even when things are hard?  God sees, and He knows, and He loves.

Maybe we can all try to do a little bit more of that, too.

Welcome to my blog!  Come follow along on my Facebook page.

On Polarization and Life As a Blogger

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To Those Whom It May Or May Not Concern: copious amounts of self-reflection, and the processing of assorted thoughts no one else will care about, coming right up.  Consider yourselves, dear readers, warned.

On Saturday morning I had a conversation with a sweet (in-real-life-but-now-long-distance) friend, over messenger.  I’d noticed this friend hadn’t been blogging lately, and hers was one of the few blogs I was still reading, so I was curious if she’d finally called it quits.

Which is, of course, something I think most of us bloggers are probably tempted to do on a regular basis.  But maybe even moreso now, as the large blogs have gotten bigger, and the small blogs like mine, with essay-style entries and random stories about my kids chasing mice, are losing readers.  I’m sure there’s a lot to it, and I’m not complaining, but it does change things a little bit.

I began blogging in 2005 merely as a way to document an adoption process.  Then I found myself with an audience and a platform and a “cause”, so to speak, so I kept writing.  Still about adoption certainly, but also large family life, surviving long days with many small toddlers, and issues of faith.  Eventually I up and joined the Catholic Church and so I started writing about that, too, gaining a sizable number of Catholic readers (and probably losing some readers, too.)

In all honesty, playing the game (with relatively few results) grew pretty tiring.  Turns out I’m not fabulous at networking or growing a platform which is, for better or worse, a necessary part of blogging today.  My reasons for doing what I do have changed over the years to be sure, and as my time as a wife and a mother to eight (soon to be nine) children becomes more valuable, I find myself reevaluating the wisdom of keeping up with this space.  But I also don’t know that I see myself giving it up, either.

The other problem, as I see it, is that sincere, authentic, and nuanced thoughts have become more difficult to express over the past few years.  The average person sees a lot about Pope Francis in the media right now, for example, so it would make sense to use some of that stuff as a jumping off point.  Goodness knows I have thoughts, lots and lots of thoughts.  And maybe in the past, this is a topic I’d be drawn to explore in written form.  But things have grown so very contentious among people, and there is so much confusion swirling around about what it means to follow a pope and have a successor to St. Peter, even when he regularly says things that are misconstrued at best (or misguided at worst), that I am reticent to even open my mouth for fear of being labeled as this or that.  (At this point you’re either a “traddie” with a tin-foil hat, or a progressive.  I am neither.  So there.)

Another example of a bitterly divided culture is probably the current political climate…need I say more?  I’m a registered Republican, and it’s looking more and more like The Donald will be our guy, and while I’m certainly no fan I am really kind of baffled by the people who are baffled that he’s doing so well, because I think it actually makes a lot of sense why he’s doing so well.  (Same with Bernie Sanders, actually.  People are tired of business as usual in Washington.  They want a shake-up.  Trump is the only candidate who made himself stand out at those vague, dry, too-many-people-up-on-the-stage debates.  So monster or not, he’s winning, and not without good reason–even though I’m not voting for him in the primary.)

As far as what I enjoy reading these days, I really like the social, political, and religious commentary on Rod Dreher’s blog, but it turns out he’s a bit of a pariah in the Catholic community because he left the Catholic Church over how the abuse scandals were handled by various bishops.  Not that I care, but other people seem to?  Also, Ross Douthat, and some writers for the Washington Post.  This is probably another issue, that I gravitate towards things beyond my own niche and therefore make no blogospheric friends.  Hmmm.

And mommy blogs?  Today’s successful lifestyle and parenting blogs are super polished, photograph-heavy, and utilizing various forms of social media and meta-blogging for promotion.  Lesser-known blogs like mine are fast disappearing, because honestly, I think the moment has passed.  Not good or bad, it just is.  My stats are abysmal, shares are down, views are low.  For a long time I’d hoped to transition to writing some sort of paid column for an online publication, but that has yet to materialize.  Then I worked hard on a book proposal several months ago that has somehow vanished–yes, vanished–from my laptop.

Woe is me!  The struggle is real!  Blogging is so hard!

Just kidding.  Promise.

The honest truth is that once I gave up Facebook, and got away from all the bloggy wars and chatter, I knew that I would need to really give some though to how I wanted to continue and where I wanted to go with my writing.  Most of all, I needed to rediscover my why.

And, I think I’m still stuck there, in that space of attempting to discern not even so much my intended direction, but my purpose.  I remember the days when sitting down at a keyboard in front of a blank white screen was fresh, exciting, and fun.  I had things to say, and people who might read them.  Now, as my friend mentioned on Saturday, I feel like I’ve probably already said anything I could possibly contribute to a reasonably intelligent conversation.

Which begs the question of, am I a writer?  Do I even want to be a writer?  Is that some part of my permanent identity that doesn’t go away, maybe kind of like how you don’t stop being a mother even when your children have long since moved out of your home?  Truly, I don’t know.  Ever since beginning this journey as a blogger, I’ve dreamed of eventually becoming a published author, of writing books.  That has yet to materialize as well, because I haven’t taken the time to pursue it or even consider what direction I want to go.  Except the time when I did, and somehow managed to lose it all to the black hole of technology.

Add to all of this the fact that hey, I’m no longer homeschooling.  (Woohoo!)  Which means that my days are, well, pretty free now for the most part.  Sure there are occasional errands to run and groceries to buy, and a perpetually chattering two-year-old underfoot, but I at least have the potential to buckle down and get some good work done if I’m so inclined.  But, what exactly do I want to do?

Honestly, I don’t know.  I really don’t.  Five years ago I would have said that blogging is “a really nice outlet for me”, but nowadays I confess that it oftentimes seems more trouble than it’s worth.  And I’m not complaining here by the way, just reflecting on a medium that has changed dramatically over the years.  Plus I’ve probably changed a little bit, too, and I guess all of this is to say that I feel like I’m at a bit of a turning point in my life, both as a mother (of kids-that-are-now-in-middle-school), and as a blogger (in a rapidly changing/dwindling/polarized blogosphere).

So I guess I’ll take this opportunity to share a little bit of the lay of the land in various areas of my life right now.  A synopsis, if you will, of where I’m at and the things I typically blog about.  Getting all of this stuff out helps me think through the whole matter, so if you’re sitting there asking yourself “What is the point of this seemingly pointless and long-winded blogpost about blogging?”, well, that’s the point.  It’s about me, me, and me.  Blogging in a nutshell, amiright?

Also, you were warned.

Motherhood:  Hello my name is Brianna, and I have eight kids.  Four are my biological children, and four are adopted from Ethiopia.  Two of my adopted children have Down syndrome.  My oldest child is twelve.  My youngest is two.  I’m pregnant with number nine, if you can believe it, which we are over-the-moon excited about, because guess what?  Apparently having a bunch of kids never seems to diminish the joy over a new birth, a new life.  One of God’s little miracles and one of the best-kept secrets of large families, I think.

On another topic, we have entered a new parenting phase this year, the whole MY KID IS IN MIDDLE SCHOOL thing.  And I have another two kids entering middle school this next fall.  Eesh.  So we are regularly navigating conversations about music, screen time, members of the opposite sex, attitudes, friendships, and entertainment choices.  Not for the faint of heart.  I’m taking a page out of Justice Scalia’s book and repeating over and over again that “we are not everybody else, and won’t be doing what everybody else is doing, so get used to it.”  Thankfully my kids are all pretty “young” versions of their ages so far–they’re happy riding bikes and drawing pictures and chasing after wounded coyotes in our field.  They enjoy Taylor Swift and Michael Jackson, but are not super savvy when it comes to pop culture in general.  They believe mom and dad when they say there’s some bad stuff out there.  They’re kids.  But they have friends who dig rap music, are a tad boy crazy, or who have different standards at home.  So we do a lot of talking, and I am doing a lot of praying.

Marriage:  I’ve been married to Kevin for nearly fourteen years now.  Goodness, that seems like a long time!  He’s a successful engineer who designs stuff that goes on the space station, and I’m an at-home mom, and we make a great team.  I married him because he makes me laugh and makes me think, and has an unwavering faith in God and a heart that wants to do (and does) good things.  We have our occasional spats, but communication is one of our strengths, so we seem to do okay.  We see eye to eye on the big important stuff, but are completely incompatible when it comes to ice cream flavors and movie choices.  (Give me a scoop and a half of peppermint, and a documentary about sociopaths, while he prefers chocolate chip cookie dough and Cinderella Man for the fifth time.  I also really love me some butter pecan, which he swears smells like urine.  Whatevs.)  He is also a packrat, while I am downright gleeful about throwing things away–right after we got married, on his first day away at work, I marched out to the dumpster with his old slippers, old bedsheets, and VHS storage containers.  He has not forgotten this.

Catholicism:  Four and a half years ago, both my husband and I were received into the Catholic Church.  He’d grown up Lutheran, I was raised in a non-denominational church, and we met at a non-denominational church in college–which we continued to attend after getting married, until moving to Denver.  Then we joined a PCA church that met downtown, and had our babies baptized, something I’d sworn I’d never do.  Then, after discovering the wealth of wisdom possessed by the Catholic Church about marriage and children (read: openness to life), I became curious about what else historic Christianity had to say.  If they were so right about these (albeit challenging) things over here, are they right about other things, too?  After much studying, prayer and discussion, my husband and I made the decision to convert.  Crazytown.

Catholicism is a funny thing.  I’m Catholic because, simply, I believe it is TRUE.  I believe this is the church Jesus founded, over whom He gave authority to the apostles, and promised to protect from error.  That doesn’t mean that everything the pope says on airplanes is correct, it doesn’t mean Catholics make better Christians, and it doesn’t mean everything sits well or resonates with me.  It doesn’t mean I don’t still have questions, concerns, or even complaints.  It just means I love Jesus, I read the history and the doctrines, and came to be convinced that this is Christ’s Church.  The fullness of the faith.  The human and the divine.

And now that the novelty of conversion has long since worn off, I’ve set down the books on apologetics in favor of more practical or inspirational reads.  I love anything from Mother Theresa, and I’m intrigued by this whole idea of the “Year of Mercy.”  I’m carving out more space in my life in general, which is proving extremely beneficial.  I guess you could say I’m a Christian, just like I always was, except now I receive the Eucharist and am a full-fledged participant in Christ’s Church.  We have a beautiful faith with a beautiful legacy, and in a country whose (unlike much of the world) religious identity is largely Protestant, I hope I can stand as an example of “Hey, there’s a Catholic lady that wasn’t always Catholic, and found something she didn’t have before in, of all places, the Catholic Church.”

Blogging:  Pretty sure we’ve already hit that, ad nauseum.  But yes, I’m a blogger, and have been writing here since 2005.  Tell your friends.

Radio Show Hosting:  Several months ago I launched a radio show, Just Showing Up.  My show is in the style of a podcast, where I pretty much just talk and ramble for 48 minutes.  I don’t know what I’m doing, really, but it’s pretty fun.  I have some ideas for the future–people I’d love to interview and topics I’d like to tackle–but while my house is under construction right now (big remodel underway), I’m taking it easy.  My show airs on Saturdays and Sundays, but you can listen to episodes any old time, or actually subscribe to the podcasts on iTunes.  I typically share about the week I’ve had, what I’m reading or listening to or watching, raising kids with special needs, and what’s presently inspiring me.  I discuss my faith but I don’t think the show is uber Catholic-y, for better or worse.  Please give it a listen!

Social Media:  My blog has a Facebook page, where I occasionally post interesting-to-me links, thoughts, and photos.  My additional social media accounts can be found at the top of my blog here.  “Liking” my Facebook page is a good way to stay up to date on blog posts and such, plus it helps with platform building if I ever have the fortitude to revisit my book proposal.  Speaking of social media in general, I did this crazy thing two months ago and gave up scrolling through Facebook.  I cannot even begin to tell you how great this has been.  I’m probably totally out of touch with most of what’s going on, and oh, it feels so good.

A Mother’s Lent

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Want to know how my Lent is going?

Yesterday afternoon, within the span of about an hour, things really hit the fan around here.

On my way to pick up one kid/drop off another for musical practice at school, my darling two-year-old sprung a horrible, messy, gushing bloody nose.  In the car.  While I was driving.  Hello school crossing guards, teachers, and hordes of students.  Pay no attention to the little girl in the backseat, COVERED IN BLOOD.

After picking up aforementioned child, I learned of a situation at school that necessitated me contacting the director/principal, pretty much immediately upon arriving home.  Well maybe not immediately, since I had to deal with the bloody kid, but once that was taken care of I sat down to draft an email expressing some concerns, which I am generally loathe to do.  Something you need to know about me is that I just plain don’t like making waves, or imposing on people, or troubling anyone.  Turns out when you have kids though, you have to do that sometimes.  Darn.

My Very Important emailing sesh was interrupted, though, when the bus pulled up.  While I was helping my two young daughters with Down syndrome climb off of the bus, including one who has been having a Very Hard Time on the bus lately, a man on my typically-peaceful little alpaca-filled street, upon having to wait for us, began HONKING AT ME AND MY KIDS AND THE BUS.  He sat there in his fancy SUV and fancy clothes, and was apparently put off by the reality that children with disabilities do not navigate the steps of the bus as quickly as he would prefer.  Then, when the bus pulled forward enough for him to pass by, and while my daughters and I were still relatively close to the edge of the street, he deemed it necessary to honk some more, accelerate as loudly and quickly as possible, and SHAKE HIS FIST AT US AS HE SPED BY.  Oh.for.the.love.  I have never come closer to screaming out expletives at a stranger in my entire life as I did in that series of moments.  Maybe I would have, had I not been consumed with aiding my little girls in escaping his erratic driving and fist-shaking.

Once safely indoors, I tried to resume my I’m-so-sorry-to-bother-you-with-this-but-I-am-a-little-concerned email composition.  But I was just too upset by the nutjob with the horn, so instead I grabbed a bag of mini-M&Ms leftover from a Valentine’s Day party, and shoved a few fistfuls into my mouth.  Because Lent or not, what an afternoon.  I briefly entertained the thought that, you know, consuming a bunch of sugar was probably harming my mental state more than helping, but only until I decided that no.  The candy was definitely helping.  So, I had some more.

By now of course it was time to go pick up my four aspiring thespians from their Wizard of Oz preparations, and it became quickly apparent upon their entering the car that one of these children was in a No Good Very Bad Mood.  This would eventually culminate in the child pinching a different (read: unsuspecting) child and causing much distress, so I had some more M&Ms–which was probably a good thing since the (frozen, from Costco) meal I “made” for dinner didn’t turn out to be enough for all ten of us, and the green beans I had planned to roast to accompany the meal were slimy and stinky.  I hate when that happens.  But chocolate as a Lenten appetizer and side-dish works for me, and I would strongly encourage you to try it. If nothing else it gave me the fortitude to finally send off that email, comfort the grumpy, pinching kid who was now crying in my lap about who even knows what, and get ready to walk (or run) out the door for my monthly women’s group at church.

All in a day’s work, right?  Oh, and I have a yucky cold.  While I’m on the subject of complaining about my various woes.

Honestly, afternoons like that are (thankfully) pretty rare.  The backseat of my car doesn’t usually look like a scene from a horror movie, I don’t often have business I need to attend to with school administration, my neighbors don’t typically act like deranged lunatics, violent pinching of innocent bystanders is generally kept to a minimum, and most nights I’m capable of throwing together a balanced meal with non-rotting vegetables.

But sometimes, well, it happens.  All of it.  At the same time.  As I was prompted by a very wise friend last night to consider what God might be trying to teach me this Lent (which is probably a good thing for me to do, because clearly the standard giving up chocolate thing is not a sacrifice I have chosen to make), one lesson that keeps coming to mind is simply that all of the little, mundane, seemingly inconsequential things I do are things done for Jesus.  And honestly, most of what I do amounts to that.  I’m not out there curing cancer or changing the world or even making some big name for myself–especially not in the blogosphere, which incidentally is fast becoming a sad graveyard of broken writing dreams come to die.  (More woes.)  No, I’m usually here at the house, wiping noses and changing diapers and reminding various kids about various things like “Pack your lunch!” and “Finish your chores!” and, always, “Mommy loves you.”

Yet even in spite of the relative simplicity of my life and my vocation, I don’t always do it well.  Sometimes I yell and shout or, conversely, am lazy and complacent.  Sometimes I sit at our plastic picnic table, wedged in between a falling-apart kitchen peninsula held together by duct tape, and a wall with holes in it–where an over-eager electrician put a wayward drill in the wrong spot–and wonder how on EARTH will I manage to survive this remodel, much less see all these babies off to college and beyond.  Will they still be pinching and lying and tattling, and putting their shirts on backwards, in five or ten years?  Will they keep their faith in an increasingly secularized world?  Will they know in the deepest parts of themselves that they are loved by Jesus?  Will they seek out healthy relationships?  Will they look back and think happy thoughts about their childhoods?  Will they experience, embrace, and understand the mercy of God?  Will they ever find gainful employment when they can’t even keep track of their shoes?

I know.  I know.  That sort of psychotic worry/anxiety/shame spiral doesn’t do anyone any good, especially me, but it happens.  The struggle is real.  But what if I really took things day by day, moment by moment, and trusted God with the outcomes?  What if I saw my vocation as more of a marathon than a sprint (gosh I hate running), as a meeting of needs and offering of myself and, sometimes, a thing as simple as merely sitting at that darn picnic table and being available?  What if I believed–really believed–that God knows precisely what each person under this roof needs, and that He is sufficient for meeting every single one of those needs?  What if I saw my role as wife and mother and daughter of God as, ultimately, just showing up?  (Incidentally, the former name of this blog and the current name of my radio show.)  Giving my yes?  Trusting God with the rest?

So that is my Lent, I think.  Accepting my limitations, embracing my humble position, sacrificing myself in countless little ways each day.  The irony is that in acknowledging that the most important things we do are the things that go unseen, we are somehow also revealing the dignity inherent in those things.  All of the little crosses we carry, are crosses we carry for Jesus.

In a message he delivered about Lent last month, Pope Francis shared the following:

God’s mercy transforms human hearts; it enables us, through the experience of a faithful love, to become merciful in turn.  In an ever new miracle, divine mercy shines forth in our lives, inspiring each of us to love our neighbour and to devote ourselves to what the Church’s tradition calls the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.  These works remind us that faith finds expression in concrete everyday actions meant to help our neighbours in body and spirit: by feeding, visiting, comforting and instructing them.

Well.  If that right there doesn’t essentially describe what we mothers in the trenches are doing every single day, I don’t know what does.

So let’s all look for the hope, renewal, and beautiful mercies waiting to be discovered during Lent this year.  I’m personally really hoping that my afternoon today is a heck of a lot less crazy than yesterday’s.

But even if it’s not, I have Jesus.  And chocolate.  Because Lent.

The Ways We Spend Our Time

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I’m finding that the older I get, the more protective I am of my time.

Years ago, if there was something going on within a ten mile radius, I would go.  I just would.  Getting out of the house felt like a real treat–which it really, truly is when your husband’s away at work all day and you’re homeschooling several small children.  And on Sundays when Kevin was watching football (yawn), I’d opt instead to jump in the car and go browse Target, or head to the mall or the thrift store.  (I don’t particularly like football, just in case you didn’t know.  And if it’s even possible, I like it even less after all the trash-talking and assorted shenanigans on display post-Superbowl.  These are adults, making millions of dollars, acting like little kids.  Also, racial bias is for real.  But I digress.)

So as my dear children are getting older (I have a kid who just turned TWELVE, people!), and now that we no longer homeschool (all praises be to a merciful and loving Jesus, who saw fit to send me a wonderful K-12 school five minutes from my front door), I find myself being a little more choosy about going out and doing stuff, just for the sake of going out and doing stuff.  I find myself reflecting more on the things I really like to do, and the people with whom I really like to spend my time.

Then since more or less abandoning social media, I am engaging more freely and happily with my kids.  It doesn’t hurt either that a large portion of my home is basically off-limits right now because of our remodel, and we are spending most of our time squished together in our basement, or at a plastic picnic table in our kitchen.  I also have multiple kids involved in multiple after-school activities, like geography club and a musical production and a soccer season about to start.  So I spend a fair amount of time with these small, chatty people, getting them to and from where they need to be, making sure they have what they need for this or that, and just plain being there.  To listen, and to talk.

Maybe mastering the art of time management is no big thing for you, but I confess it’s something new for me. Over the past few months I’ve felt compelled to not only really evaluate where my time is going, but also what my priority activities really are.  I belong to a couple of monthly groups at church, for example–one is a group of women, the other a group of couples.  Both of these communities are important to me (and also include some of my dearest friends), so I’ll stick with them.  Which means I don’t have plans to join up with any other formal groups, tempting as it may occasionally be.  Why?  Because I’m discovering that I love my life so much more if I’m not doing too much!

There are countless benefits, I’m finding, to be gained from intentional and simple living.  So I’m sharing five things today that I’ve found personally helpful in managing my time and, ultimately, making me a happier person.

 

1. Getting organized with a good calendar

Okay, this is an easy place to start.  You’re probably already doing this.  But for a long time I resisted, because I felt confident keeping track of stuff in my head (and apparently didn’t mind lots of random slips of paper all over my house.)  Now though, I have several kids involved in different activities, assorted doctor appointments to keep track of, and I’m presently contending with what I shall call “pregnancy brain”, where I don’t always remember things if they’re not written down.  I’ve tried various planners and calendars over the years, but I gotta tell you, my all-time favorite and current go-to?  The Erin Condren LifePlanner. It’s personalized with my name, it’s cute, and it can fit into a purse.  I know a lot of folks prefer a digital calendar on a smartphone, but I am not one of them.  Primarily because I like to be able to jot stuff down and really see what my week looks like, plus my kids can easily access it to see what time they need to be at soccer practice or drama club.  In the past I would have scoffed at the $50 price-tag, but I’ve learned that it’s really a very small price to pay for something that works, is of good quality, and simplifies my life.

2. Cutting out the clutter

If you ask my husband, who is the one person on the planet privy to all my rantings and opinions (and who just last night had to listen to a VERY DETAILED description about the two TV shows I watched yesterday, 20/20 and Curb Your Enthusiasm), he will tell you I have a number of soapboxes.  Which is true.  But this right here?  One of my very most cherished.  As I have purged and donated and organized and culled over the past few years, I have discovered a beautiful freedom that comes with a clean and simplified home environment.  I never realized how much stress an overabundance of STUFF inevitably causes, until I started getting rid of that stuff.  This process has also helped me discover what I like and what I don’t, and the crazy thing is that I’m so much more content now than I used to be, when my closets were overflowing with things that were rarely used.  Maybe the greatest benefit of all, though?  More mental and emotional space in my life.  There is definitely a connection there.  Trust me.  A great place to start if you’re new to decluttering is with Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.  That woman is a genius.  So give it a read, grab some garbage bags, and get busy–I really think you’ll love it!

3. Knowing yourself and your priorities

The details will ebb and flow and change, but as a general principle, it’s essential to making good decisions about how to use your time.  And it seems so obvious and easy, but how often have I committed to things that I’m not really all that interested in, simply because I could?  Or because I felt obligated?  If someone invites you to join a book club and you don’t like to read, don’t join the club.  If you want your kids involved in after-school sports, don’t feel bad about keeping Saturdays free for going to the games.  When you as a family (and as an individual!) know the direction you want to go in and the way you want to do things, it is SO much easier to say no to the other stuff.  For us right now, we value church activities (the groups I’ve already mentioned plus one my husband attends, Religious Education for our kids, altar serving for my sons, a formation group for my daughters), time with close friends and family, and assorted extra-curricular activities: soccer, drama club, geography club, and honor choir.  (Plus swim team in the summer.)  And that’s pretty much it.  We spend a lot of time at home, together, just hanging out.  I often joke that we are a really boring family, but it’s actually kind of true.  And, we love it that way.  Because I know myself well enough to know that I hate feeling like I wasted my time doing stuff I didn’t totally love.

4. Fighting for margin

This pretty much goes hand in hand with discerning your priorities, but I am giving it its own number.  Why?  Because I think it is so, so important.  It would be totally possible to fill up every single little moment of my day or weekend or month with something.  Because there are so many good things out there, things to join or attend or commit to, for both me and my kids.  But I’ve discovered that, on those rare weeks when we are going pretty much constantly?  I start to lose my ever-loving mind.  Thankfully this doesn’t happen too often (usually in December, with multiple school programs and parties, and then every once in awhile throughout the rest of the year), but when it does, I really have to take some deep breaths–and give thanks that, normally, our life really isn’t like that.  We leave a lot of space for rest, leisure, and getting-stuff-done-around-the-house.  Sometimes this takes some effort, because it entails saying no, which is just plain hard.  But I’m learning that saying no to one thing is really just saying yes to something else, and when you look at it that way, it’s really not so very bad at all.  Plus, in a day and age when so little value is placed on taking time to think and process and imagine, I want my kids (and me!) to have the experience, on a regular basis, of just being still.  It makes for a well-balanced life, and also contributes to health and well-being.  For all of us.

5. Limiting social media and screen time

Last but not least, and yet another one of my (admittedly more recent) soapboxes.  But this one here is gold, pure gold, I tell you!  You already know that as of December, I don’t spend much time on Facebook anymore.  This has absolutely made me a happier, more productive and healthy person, even in just a month and a half.  Not only does it free up a bunch of my time, it has allowed me to spend that time doing other things, or sometimes nothing at all.  (Possibly my favorite thing to do, or not do as it were.)  I’m reading good books (right now, Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project and Diary of Sister Maria Faustina Kowalska), chatting more with my kids, and apparently watching really high-brow television shows.  (I was sick in bed with a cold, if that matters.  And gosh I’m sorry, but Larry David is a brilliant writer and comic.)  But even beyond all of that, I was a psychology major in college–and am just naturally interested in behavior patterns, brain function, and group dynamics.  And the more I read about smart phones, social media, and the way technology trends are actually changing our culture one brain at a time, I’m completely terrified.  And no, that is not an exaggeration, or pearl-clutching hyperbole.  I actually just got a book that I can’t wait to dig into, on this very subject.  I also recently read this excellent piece by Rod Dreher.  It made me feel good about the direction I’ve taken with social media in my own life, and it has also reinforced my resolve to severely restrict device usage among my kids.

Who got tablets for Christmas, which are super handy for homework (I wish they didn’t need technology for homework but alas, they do), and the occasional living room gaming session.  We have taken many precautions here–every single tablet is password protected (so only mom or dad can enable usage), they are permitted only in common areas of the house, and aside from homework?  My kids don’t get much time on them at all.  It’s a treat.  Something fun.  Every once in awhile.

But I’m now thinking more about the social aspect of what they do–my twelve year old daughter, for example, enjoys sending little emails and texts (via a free texting app, since she has no phone) to her friends and her younger sister, and to me.  Lots of “Hi”s and “Bye”s, and “Are you coming to the church potluck?”s.  The occasional poop emoji.  All very silly and innocent.  But.  I am really considering ways to limit this, too.  NOT because she’s doing anything bad, but because of the research coming out about how this form of communication can really change the way relationships form, and how people are able to communicate in real life.  I want her to one day be able to hold an intelligent conversation at a dinner party without feeling compelled to check her phone, and to get the most out of her friendships.  I also don’t want her down-time punctuated by incoming texts, or wondering when the next little text will come in.  This is an ongoing conversation in our home, and my daughter was actually really interested in the things I’ve been reading about, so we’ll see.  In any case, no matter who you are–adult or child–stepping away from the glow of the screen can absolutely revolutionize how you spend your time, and lead to better time-management.