When You Say Young Black Men

inner-cityYesterday I spent a good part of my day writing about Baltimore.

And before I could hit publish, I lost the whole thing.

After working my way through the natural progression of emotions (anger, wishing for a time-machine, and anger), I decided to move on and find something else to share today.  Maybe something a little less controversial or divisive.  Maybe a good diversion from what everyone else is talking about.  Maybe some thoughts better-suited to the typical reader here.

But then last night I noticed someone ranting on Facebook about all of the problems with “young black men”.

And I decided that no.  I AM going to write about Baltimore.

Because I have two young black men living in my home.

They are my sons.

I am going to begin this discussion by saying that no one should be defending or otherwise condoning the violent and destructive behavior we’ve seen in Baltimore in recent days.  And, few people are.  The average person on the street does not look at burning buildings or looted stores and say that’s the way to advocate for anything, much less justice.  Likewise, it is a small percentage of Baltimore’s young black men participating in these activities.  There are a number of marchers and protestors trying to get the nation’s attention, yes, but overall?  The average young black man is not breaking the law to do it.

Of course the media would have you believe otherwise.  They love capturing footage that makes for good entertainment and viewing.  And while the camera doesn’t lie, the lense is unbelievably narrow.  Anything we see has been carefully crafted by organizations that make money off of views and clicks, and every news outlet has an angle.  A narrative.

And speaking of narrative, consider an article I read yesterday from a news publication in San Luis Obispo, California, where I attended college.  The article was about Poly Royal, the epic party weekend SLO used to host every year.  Poly Royal was widely known and well-attended, and drew countless out-of-town guests in addition to the many university students.  But then one year things got out of hand, and a huge mob started rioting.  They threw bricks and Molotov cocktails at police officers.  They damaged and looted businesses.  Needless to say, the otherwise sleepy college town discontinued the Poly Royal event after that.  By the time I attended Cal Poly State University, it was nothing more than a boring open house weekend that wasn’t worth attending.

Then years later, San Luis Obispo also had to cancel the annual Mardi Gras parade (which I actually remember attending in high school), for pretty much the same reasons.  Bottle-throwing and rioting.  A mob that got out of control.  $100,000 worth of damage.  People vs. police officers.

But did you know that the affluent town of San Luis Obispo is roughly 84% white?  And only 1% black?  Did you know that it was mostly young men involved in the aforementioned riots–and predominantly young white men?  Did you know that the median household income in San Luis Obispo is $60, 534?

And yet the race of the offenders was never really part of the news reports.  Facebook didn’t exist back then, but I’m betting that if it had, nobody would have been commenting on the problems plaguing “young white men.”  No, instead it was merely a crowd that had too much to drink and got overexcited, when the fist-fights broke out.  It was a bunch of immature boys causing trouble, when they threw bricks and bombs at cops.  Today when community members complain that drunk university students are regularly pissing and vomiting on their lawns, it’s shrugged off as “kids being kids.”  A minor inconvenience.

But not in Baltimore.

No, young black men don’t have that advantage.  Instead, when young black men behave badly, they are called animals, thugs, or worse.

A desperate black mother yanking her son out of the war-zone becomes either a Facebook meme or an abuser.

The son gets speculated about all over the interwebz because I BET HE HAS NO FATHER.

Well, no, people should not be setting fires or attacking police officers.  There’s no excuse for violent behavior.  And who knows, maybe that boy’s father isn’t around.  But mob mentality is colorblind, even if the impetus for the riots in Baltimore involved racial injustice.  Even a rich community with a fancy university, and mostly white residents, finds young men making terrible decisions.

And MY young black men?  My ten year old sons who for now are boys, but are growing stronger and older every single day?  They don’t miss a thing.  They hear the messages about their identity and self-worth as young black men.  If you didn’t know, kids say stupid, cruel things like “the color of your skin looks like poop” or “I don’t want to play with you because you’re black.”  Yep, at ten years old, my sons have heard both.  And as their mother I do my very best to encourage and sympathize, and instill in them a sense of worth in being young black men.  Because hello, that is precisely who God created them to be!  I tell them I love their skin, I tell them that we are all part of the human race, I tell them most of the world isn’t white, I tell them that even though I cannot walk in their shoes, they can come to me with their hurts.  And, they will have hurts.

You can talk respectfully about the various problems facing the urban poor–for blacks and whites and Latinos alike, issues such as generational poverty, addiction, racial injustice, and gang violence are destroying lives.  The breakdown of the nuclear family is destroying lives.  But the generalizing about young black men has to stop.

Baltimore has been struggling for decades, and the community is hurting.  And it’s not so hidden now, because the wounds have been ripped wide open for everyone to see.  Will we listen?  Again I am NOT excusing or defending the violence–which is not only terrible but also a separate issue, which the media has successfully used to divert attention away from the real problems.  I condemn any and all violent and destructive actions, from what is happening in Baltimore to what happened in my old college town.  I believe the offenders belong in jail, and ought to be held accountable by their community.

But I AM talking about corruption, and about the erosion of trust between law enforcement and citizens–many of whom are working their butts off right now to pick up the pieces in their broken neighborhoods.

So let’s pray for peace, justice, and reconciliation in Baltimore.  Let’s make sure we’re seeing what’s really going on–this excellent series of photographs is a good place to start. 

Oh, and people out there on social media? Experience tells me that young black men are pretty darn awesome.  You should probably get to know some.  FYI.

On Bruce Jenner and Radical Mercy

 

brucejenner1Can I go a little outside of the box today, friends?

I don’t generally comment (publicly, anyway!) on whatever the latest pop culture controversy might be.  It’s just not my bag, partly (mostly?) because I rather detest pop culture–as in, I’m pretty sure if Western civilization ever falls apart, it will be solely due to the obsession with reality TV and photo-shopped celebrity gossip mags.

But today?

Today I’m sitting at my keyboard and writing about the pop culture thing that pretty much everyone is writing about: last week’s 20/20 interview with Bruce Jenner.

I honestly don’t really know anything about the Kardashians.  Well, except that one of them is married to Kanye West, and one of them got kicked off the Celebrity Apprentice a few years ago for getting a DUI.  (Okay, sometimes I do watch reality shows.  It’s Donald Trump, you know.  He’s kind of nuts.  Hard to pass up.)  And I know that Bruce Jenner is involved somehow with the family–I think he’s the stepdad.

And, they have a majorly popular reality show about being rich and famous and beautiful.  Which I have never, ever watched.  Refer above to my thoughts on pop culture.

It apparently came as quite a shock to people to hear that the former manly-man Olympian is in the process of transitioning into a woman.  This interview was, understandably, a very big deal.  Bruce Jenner opened up to Diane Sawyer about his life and his journey.

Something I feel like I should say before I go any further is that I hold unwaveringly to the historic Christian understanding of creation and the human person.  I believe it fundamentally impossible to “switch” sexes–no amount of hormones, surgery, or feelings can change the reality of who God created you to be.  I am a woman.  Bruce Jenner, however, is not, and ultimately never will be–even in spite of his appearance–because regardless one’s concept of gender, one’s given sex is a foundational thing.  Which comes from God.  Of course someone can live as a woman and believe he is a woman, but it doesn’t make it so.

That being said, my overall impression of the interview?  Bruce Jenner is one brave dude!  He is struggling, and has been for many years, and went on national television to tell his story.  Of course the issue of gender dysphoria is nothing new, but how we as a culture approach it certainly is.  Jenner believes, like most folks today, that taking the appearance and claiming the identity of a woman will solve the troubling issue of what he is experiencing inside his heart and mind.  And while there are people who affirm this idea, there are others who would advise him to proceed with caution, because all is not roses on the other side of that fence.  Personally I suspect that some of his demons might initially appear to be resolved by transitioning, but I don’t know that it will be as neat and tidy as he hopes.  And I also imagine new problems will be introduced, and there will be a ripple effect felt throughout his family and friends and community.  It’s sad.  But that’s just my hunch, which I humbly submit is nothing but that: a hunch.

Bruce Jenner knows that something is wrong.  He desperately wants to be whole.  He wants to be loved.  He wants to love himself.

He is not so very different from the rest of us.

So I guess I wanted to say that I am saddened by the politicization and culture warring that is swirling around Bruce Jenner’s declaration that he wants to be a woman.  The mocking and the snark on the one side, and the angling and co-opting on the other.  No, Diane Sawyer, not everyone struggling with their identity is a stereotype who aligns themselves with your particular political party.  No, religious talking heads, not everyone is happy with who they are, and not everyone feels comfortable in their own skin.  Sometimes, somebody is born one way but feels another.  Consider the anorexic who thinks she’s fat when she’s not, or the person crippled by body dysmorphic disorder.  There is a legitimate debate over the best way to approach the issue of gender dysphoria, but it exists.  And, it’s clearly no walk in the park.

Personal mental or emotional struggle (or whatever you want to call it) of course always carries a stigma.  Compassion can be hard to come by.  And there are so many agenda-driven cultural messages shooting back and forth nowadays, that people can scarcely hear over the noise!  But my goodness, why can’t we just listen?  And love?  And respond with gentle but firm truth?  You don’t have to agree that Bruce Jenner’s best option here is to transition–I really don’t believe that it is–but consider that we’re talking about a real person, with real feelings and hopes and dreams and challenges.  And this challenge in particular is no doubt excruciatingly hard.

Obviously most of us don’t know Bruce Jenner in real life, but I bet we know other people experiencing identity issues, or mental illness, or who are facing down monsters and giants.  And while I’m a big ol’ believer in sharing the truth–because there’s nothing remotely tolerant or loving about intentionally withholding the beauty of what is right and good from a person–I’m also an advocate for being a person who loves freely and humbly.  Who aspires to understand and to hear.  Who knows that I have my own frailties and shortcomings, and my own stuff.  We all have stuff!  And I don’t love people perfectly, not even close, but by golly I want to at least try to do a little bit of good.  Make the world a little better.  And it starts with caring about others.

Because Jesus’ love?  It’s a gift.  It’s good news, and it’s for everyone.  As in, the entire world.  There’s no promise that life will be easy or struggle-free when you’re a Christian or following Christian principles, but then that’s kind of the beauty of the whole thing.  Jesus gives us hope.  Hope. 

And we must pass that hope along to others.

I suspect that part of the Jenner backlash is because Catholics (and traditionally-minded Protestants) are feeling a bit on the defensive in the public square lately.  And, not without good reason.  But going after a 65-year-old man for opening up in a most raw and honest way, about his lifetime of brokenness and pain?  That is nothing whatsoever to feel threatened by!  Who did Jesus come to love and to save, but the broken?

The following is taken from Pope Francis’ encyclical Evangelii Gaudium:

24. The Church which “goes forth” is a community of missionary disciples who take the first step, who are involved and supportive, who bear fruit and rejoice. An evangelizing community knows that the Lord has taken the initiative, he has loved us first (cf. 1 Jn 4:19), and therefore we can move forward, boldly take the initiative, go out to others, seek those who have fallen away, stand at the crossroads and welcome the outcast. Such a community has an endless desire to show mercy, the fruit of its own experience of the power of the Father’s infinite mercy.

Isn’t that so beautiful?  But it’s hard, too, because the call to mercy is hard.  It necessitates living in the tension.  Sometimes it means keeping quiet, and at other times, saying something difficult.  But always, always, always, humility.  And love.  And grace.

And so we really can respond from this place–where we are kind, and where we listen before we speak.  We can accept that the human condition is a most messy, clumsy thing.  We can preach the dignity of the human person, and the beauty of God’s design for men and women, while also making space.  Space for questions, fears, mess-ups, and redemption.

Because the reality is that people are wounded and hurting.  They want to be loved!  So let’s not be ruled by fear, but instead begin by hearing what they say, acknowledging their pain, expressing the truth of their human dignity, and inviting them into a friendship with ourselves and with God.  And I kind of suspect that if we busy ourselves with the business of love, truth and mercy?  We will see our lives, and world, radically and beautifully transformed.

God bless you, Bruce Jenner.  I hope and pray that one day you’ll find the grace and peace you’re looking for.

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On Filling in the Gaps

064Yesterday I wrote about how we’ve approached schooling decisions for our family.  And a sweet mama sent me a message, sharing that while her children attend their neighborhood public school, she wishes they were receiving a classical education.  This mama isn’t interested in homeschooling, and was wondering what she should do.

It’s a good question.

First let me say that there are many excellent neighborhood public schools, and I wouldn’t hesitate to send my kids to one.  And when I say “excellent”, I don’t just mean those numerical ratings that are driven by test score performance.  There is so much more to a school than that–things like diversity, the staff, and the joy that comes from investing in your neighborhood.  We happen to have this classical charter school in our neighborhood, but if it vanished into thin air tomorrow?  After sobbing hysterically into a bowl of mint-chip ice cream, I’d look at the various local neighborhood schools, and pick one.  And no doubt my kids would do just fine.

In any case, the reality is that not every family wants to (or can) educate their children at home, and not every family has access to the type of school they’d prefer for their child.  So what is a mother to do?

I think the main thing to keep in mind is that NO school is perfect, and EVERY education will have gaps.

When we were homeschooling, my children reached the point where they were not being as challenged as they could/should have been, academically speaking.  It just wasn’t happening.  Every family and situation is different, but as my kids grew older, I just wasn’t enjoying holding their feet to the fire.  So, gaps.

And as much as I adore our school we’re at now, there are things I wish were different.  I wish the kids did more memory work.  I wish they started the study of Latin a little sooner.  Heck, I wish it were a Catholic school, where my kids learned about the saints and attended daily Mass.  I wish our school had a greater African American student population, for my transracially adopted sons.  Gaps again.

Because you can’t have everything.

So in those areas where the school (be it public, charter, homeschool or private) is perhaps not meeting a perceived need, we as parents can absolutely find ways to address those gaps!

Now this will obviously look different for everyone, but I’ll share what I have personally found beneficial in filling those gaps.

We pray on the way to school, where everyone offers their intentions before we finish up with an Our Father or a Hail Mary.  (It’s a short ride!)  Then, we read about the saints and discuss the faith at home, oftentimes around the dinner or breakfast table.  I also encourage my readers to spend regular, individual time in the Bible.  Making intentional space for all of this isn’t always easy, but I’m trying to do better.  Spiritual formation is critical!

I supply my kids with library books off of Dr. John Senior’s “Great Books List”.  It’s broken down by age, and it’s a great way to ensure that your children are getting exposure to the classics.  Summertime is the perfect chance to have your kids do some major reading!

Sadly, there isn’t much I can do about the racial diversity issue at our school, but the good news is that two of my sons’ teachers are black.  There are also several Latino students who attend, so the school is certainly not disproportionately white.  And I regularly check in with my sons to see how things are going.  It’s the price we pay for living on this side of town, and for attending this school, but we still feel it to be the best option at this time.

Finally, we’ve opted not to worry too much about the memorization and Latin at this point, because for us, there is plenty going on without it right now!  But for parents wanting to spend time at home doing these things, I cannot recommend Memoria Press highly enough–Literature studies, Latin, Logic…oh my goodness, it’s a veritable feast for anyone interested in an authentically classical education.  I also like to recommend Laura Berquist’s The Harp and Laurel Wreath for poetry and memory work.  And of course The Well Trained Mind is a fabulous go-to for resources and ideas–I think there’s even a section where they talk about how to incorporate some of the classical methods, even if you’re not homeschooling.

While perhaps you might feel like your child is missing out on something, the truth is that we ALL feel that way!  Homeschooling mothers worry (I certainly did), and we send-our-kids-off-everyday mamas worry.  There is no perfect situation!  It’s easy to read the books and blog posts and articles and decide that WE MUST HAVE THIS FOR OUR CHILDREN, but really?  All we can do is our best.  And I’m willing to bet that regardless where they attend school, our kids will all grow up relatively unscathed.  Because we care, and we love our children!  Education is a big piece of a person’s life and I don’t mean to diminish its importance (because it IS important), but it’s also a broad term, and there is no shortage of ways to go about getting one.

The family is the primary school for virtue and life lessons, after all, and so if we do family well?  Our child’s education shall be a success.  Gaps and all.

And now I want to hear from YOU: do you feel like there are gaps in the education your kids are receiving?  What have you done to fill those gaps?

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To School or Not to School

My daughter doing a Russian art study on a field trip to the museum.

My daughter doing a Russian art study on a field trip to the museum.

Last week I filled out the final paperwork to enroll one of my younger daughters in Kindergarten this upcoming Fall.

And I’m feeling ALL THE FEELS about it too because, well, Kindergarten.

This is her last year at home, her last year doing whatever she wants whenever she wants, and her last year of being a little and not a big.

Oh.my.heart.

And it’s all so new for me, because we were homeschoolers back when each of my other kids began Kindergarten.  I’ve never really sent anybody off like that, and oh it is sad!  But it’s happy, too, because my daughter is SO ready and confident about going to school, and I know she’ll do great.  As for me, I’ll be here crying my eyes out.

And because it’s the season of enrollment and big school decisions, I wanted to share a little bit about what we are doing with our kids this upcoming year, and how we arrived at those choices.  But first, two VERY IMPORTANT THINGS:

1.) There is no one way to raise and educate happy, holy kids.  Because look.  If you homeschool, your kids won’t automatically be weird or socially inept, and if you send your kids to school they won’t instantly devolve into peer-pressured, pot-smoking monsters.  People on both sides of the fence sometimes prefer these extreme narratives because they make them feel better about their own choices, but it’s simply not true.  And it’s dangerous to perpetuate the idea that homeschooling is THE ideal that all Catholic women should aspire to, where sending a child to school is considered a last resort for the weak.  Conversely, there are people who swear their kids would shrivel up and die if they were to bring them home, and that’s not true either.

2.) There is no one reason for choosing a particular type of education for your child.  Believe me when I say it’s no small coincidence that parents agonize over these decisions for months on end.  It’s hard!  There are so many factors to consider, not least of which is the overall well-being of your child.  So people shouldn’t assume that somebody homeschooling doesn’t care about rigorous academics, or that a parent sending a child to school cares nothing for the child’s moral development and character.  We weigh the pros and cons and take all kinds of things into consideration, and then make a decision.  There are lots of reasons we used to homeschool, and there are lots of reasons our kids attend school now.  That’s just how it goes.

Now that those things are out of the way, I’ll tell you about our plans for this next year, and our thought process behind making those plans.  And if you are choosing something else for your family, PLEASE know I don’t think my choices are superior to yours.  Okay?

We will have seven kids in school this Fall, spread between two different schools.  My oldest child will be in 6th Grade, and my youngest school-attender will be in Kindergarten.  I’ll still have little Alice home with me!

My two daughters with Down syndrome will continue attending a neighborhood elementary school, where they receive specialized instruction, therapies, and inclusion in the mainstream classroom.  They ride a bus that picks them up and drops them off right at our house, and they love to go!  I made the decision to enroll them in school this past fall because, well, they were ready.  And the extra stimulation and independence has been SO good for them.  Their communication has improved dramatically and they feel so good about what they’re doing.

My other five kids will be attending a classical charter school (K-12) just four minutes from my home, the same one my oldest four went to this year.  It was a scary thing to send them there after so many years of homeschooling, but we are SO glad we did.  Initially it just seemed an opportunity too good to pass up, and so we figured we’d give it a try for a year.  Turns out they love going to school, are super motivated to work hard and do well, and have made HUGE gains in their education.  Plus I don’t personally enjoy teaching most subjects, so this has really been a win-win for our family.

But let’s go back in time.  When we first began thinking about school all those years ago, back when our kids were all just bitty, we anticipated eventually sending them to the local neighborhood school.  But then I read assorted books on educational philosophy.  My favorite?  The Well Trained Mind, which was all about homeschooling with the classical method.  Love me some classical education.  Most of my closest friends at the time were educating their kids at home and sending them to a weekly local enrichment program, which seemed cool.  So we decided to homeschool, using The Well Trained Mind as a guide because I am not an unschooler, I’ve never been good at hands-on projects, and I didn’t relish the idea of putting together unit studies.

Over the years though I began wishing for a classical option outside of our home.  I discovered that I don’t love teaching math, science, art, spelling, grammar, or composition.  I discovered some of my kids have some learning disabilities.  I discovered that while I wanted a good, solid classical education for my children, I was not really interested in providing it myself.  But still we homeschooled, because I felt it was better than the other options available to us at that time.

A little over a year ago though we converted our house into a rental, and picked up and moved across town.  We wanted to live closer to our church, friends, and my parents.  A home on a little over an acre (rare for this side of Denver) happened to be for sale right where we wanted to live, so we jumped on it.  (The house needs some work, but it’s doable as-is while we get our act and money together.) And shortly after moving here, we found out that a tuition-free classical charter school would be opening up RIGHT nearby!  I met with the principal, and she was amazing.  I talked to my kids, and they were thrilled at the prospect.  So, off to school they went.

But as exciting as it was to have a classical school fall right into our laps, it wasn’t exactly easy.  I worried about all kinds of things (peer influence, sibling relationships, homework load), and the initial transition was admittedly rocky.  We even dropped out for a week.  But in the end we stuck with it, and I’m glad, because once we got into a groove? This school has turned out to be pretty much the best ever.  My kids are thriving academically and socially.  Their world has been opened up a teeny bit, which has been good.  They receive 40 minutes of PE and 40 minutes of music EVERY SINGLE DAY.  We love it, every last one of us!

Figuring out the type of schooling that works best for your family at any given time is challenging.  So many things to juggle, especially in a large family, and especially with a range of personalities and learning abilities.  Plus it is not just you making the decision, but your spouse as well (if you’re married).  Couples aren’t always on the same page.  And every school is different, and there are definitely some situations I would not feel comfortable sending my kids into.  My Ethiopian daughters, for example, temporarily attended a public school while they were getting their evaluations done, in order to develop an IEP.  And I can say with certainty that I would not enroll any of my children there long-term, unless I absolutely had to.  The staff members working with my daughters were amazing, but the school’s culture and overall vibe were not.

Every family has different priorities, too.  We really value the education of the whole person, and we are finding that our chosen schools are fulfilling the academic piece quite nicely, while not detracting from conscience formation or character development.  Academics matter to us precisely because of our faith–using, engaging, and refining what God gave you–so we don’t see it as choosing math over morals.  Instead, we believe we are assisting our kids in reaching their potential, and providing for their futures.  Which we as parents are called by God to do.

So as you navigate the murky waters of educational options, take heart!  Remember that you can take it year by year.  You can change your mind.  And change it back again.  You can discover new ways of doing things, and even learn to like them.  If life feels overwhelming and you’re feeling anxious, figure out if there’s something you can tweak.  Maybe school isn’t working out so well, and you’d like to bring your kids home.  Or maybe homeschooling isn’t something you want to do anymore, and you’re thinking about enrolling somewhere for the fall.

Please know that whatever you decide, you really can raise smart, well-rounded, happy kids, who love God and love others.  Your choice of schools will probably not be the single greatest determining factor in whether or not your child succeeds in life.  Stay engaged, keep the lines of communication open, and find time to enjoy your kids–and no matter where they learn algebra, you’ll be winning!

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That Catholic Girl Podcast Episode 6 {Raccoon update, trusting God in hard times, and moms having fun}

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Welcome to episode six of my podcast!  If you missed any of the prior episodes, you can listen to them here.  You can also listen and subscribe to That Catholic Girl via iTunes!

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You are enough

 

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I was sitting in the sunshine at a girlfriend’s house this morning, when I discovered my daughter’s school had been trying to call me–for the past twenty minutes.  (That’s what happens when I forget to turn up the volume on my phone when I get out of bed.  Oops.)

Tigist is in Kindergarten, and the school said she wasn’t feeling well.  The school has been known in the past to want to send my girls with Down syndrome home anytime they have even the slightest hint of a sniffle, and I’ve had to do a fair amount of pushing back.  Does she have a fever?  No?  Well is she doing okay in her classroom?  Yes?  Then she needs to stay at school, please.  But today I could tell it was different, and so I quickly gathered up my littlest daughters and drove over there, where yes indeed Tigist was sick.  The moment we arrived home, in fact, she climbed into her bed and slept for over two hours.

It’s difficult when your child is largely unable to communicate how she’s feeling.  There’s not much time in the morning from when my two daughters wake until they board the bus, which means that I don’t necessarily know someone is a bit under the weather–until they’re at school, laying on the floor and crying.  As a mother this makes me feel terrible, but I am accepting that it is simply part of parenting a young child with Down syndrome.  We do our best but there are times when I don’t know what’s wrong, or if anything’s wrong, and sometimes I send a little girl to school who has been growing progressively worse throughout the morning.  In hindsight my daughter was a little bit grumpy yesterday afternoon, and this morning she seemed reticent to walk to the bus.  But sometimes she’s just grumpy, and sometimes she’s a little bit stubborn–so it’s just plain hard to know.  Sigh.

It’s fair to say we moms have a tendency to assume that we must be “the only one”. We have a child who struggles with this or that, we can’t seem to get our kid to do such and such, or we feel guilty because surely nobody else unknowingly sends a sick child off to school.  But do you know what’s funny?  I’ve learned to let go of all (okay, most) of that mommy angst over the years.  Because, you know, I have eight kids.  One of them has ADHD.  Several have learning disabilities.  There are some who scream and fight over shoes and earrings nearly every Sunday morning.  And, we have raccoons living in our attic.  We are a big, noisy, messy family and just like everyone else, we’re doing our best.  So my general philosophy when it comes to parenting is to focus on the positives, and to be happy.

And yet I know there are so very many mamas out there struggling with self-doubt, and feelings of guilt and shame.  I know this because when we first adopted my sons from Ethiopia, and went from one to three kids virtually overnight, I occasionally found that I did, too.  My daughter had been such an easy baby, and our initial transition to parenthood had gone so well.  Of course my sons adjusted well too, but now we couldn’t even leave our house for groceries without the stares and comments and judgment, always judgment, about our life choices.  I started to wonder if maybe we really were crazy, and if it was unrealistic to think we could manage to thrive as a larger-than-average family.

I will add a quick side-note here, and say that Catholic mothers in particular are perhaps prone to feeling overwhelmed and discouraged.  On the one hand we embrace an openness to life in marriage, and on the other we strive for holiness, love, and excellence in our approach to vocation.  How is this possible when there are so many little ones underfoot?  How do we lean into our calling and find a deep and abiding sense of joy when we have a child who doesn’t behave at school, or a two-year-old who cries out “COOKIE!” when she sees the priest raising the host during the consecration?  (Not that that happened to me this past Sunday or anything.  Ahem.)

How do we reach a place where we experience some level of confidence that what we are doing as mothers is not only okay, but good?

Honestly, for me, I have had to learn to accept that when it comes to motherhood I am, through God’s grace, enough.

The Lord has called me to love, raise, and nurture these precious little ones.  So I do my best, first and foremost, to do those very things.  Anything else is bonus.  Years when we were moving across town, and I didn’t get to throw my kid as big a birthday party as we all might have liked?  It’s okay.  Times when we’ve had quesadillas or cold cereal for dinner because dinnertime rolled around and I just couldn’t even?  It happens.  How I sent my five-year-old daughter to school this morning when she was feeling sick and all-around crummy?  She can’t always communicate, and so sometimes I do that.  And I go pick her up, and bring her home to sleep and eat lunch out on the deck, with the cat.

Thankfully, I’ve learned that my value and worth as a human being and mother don’t depend on living up to self-imposed standards that have little to nothing to do with love.  And it’s a good thing, because I’ve got all these crazy kids who lose pieces to board games, and leave handprints all over our windows and sliding glass door.  I don’t do crafts and if I’m honest, I don’t particularly enjoy cooking–though of course I do it out of necessity.  (The cooking, not the crafts.  I avoid the crafts like the plague that they are.)  But it’s all good because I love my kids, and they are happy little people, and I really am too.

So take heart, fellow mamas!  You are doing a fabulous job.  You love your kids, you work hard, and God has called you to be their mother.  Life’s too short to perpetually beat yourself up over perceived weaknesses and Pinterest shortcomings.  We should always seek to love well, but we must forever fight the temptation to adopt a false and unattainable standard for ourselves.

It is only then when we can begin to embrace the messy, imperfect, and delightfully humorous reality that is motherhood.

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That Catholic Girl Podcast {Episode 5: Kevin Heldt, raccoons, and fatherhood}

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy first guest on the podcast!  Tune in to hear my husband and I talk about our raccoon infestation, our uber-fancy basement with graffiti on the wall, and fatherhood.

That time I broke the mall

Spilled lemonade and ice.  At the mall.

Spilled lemonade and ice. At the mall.

Let’s go to the mall today, I said.

It’ll be fun, I said.

It’s just me and the two littles SO IT WILL BE EASY, I said.

It won’t matter that I don’t have a stroller with me for my two-year-old, I said.

People, I never go to the mall.

Like, ever.

In fact, I’m pretty sure there’s some scientific law out there in the universe which says that mothers with eight kids and copious amounts of poopy diapers can’t go to the mall. It’s like oil and water.

But Easter was fast approaching, and my six daughters clearly needed new dresses. Last year we got them the day of the vigil, so I thought I’d be all prepared in 2015 and get them FOUR DAYS AHEAD OF TIME. I know, right? Be impressed.

So after a leisurely coffee with some girlfriends, I decided to hit the nearby Gymboree Outlet in hopes of scoring some deals.  (I blame my burst of confidence and optimism on the caffeine surge.) All but two of my kids were in school, and people always seem to act like fewer kids are easier than lots of kids, and so I thought I CAN DO THIS. I ONLY HAVE 25% OF MY KIDS WITH ME. THIS WILL BE SO AWESOMELY AWESOME.

And, as far as the dresses went, it was! I was pleased to discover that the Gymboree Outlet was running a sale where nothing in the store cost more than $12.99. Yes, $12.99! So my Mary and my Alice sat and watched the store-provided movie like sweet little angels while I shopped, and then we left the store in search of the foodcourt. Because lunchtime.

Now we don’t really eat out much, we Heldts, because there are ten of us. And it costs a small fortune to feed the equivalent of a small country. But this day I decided I would treat my girls to lunch because we were at the mall! This is what people with two kids do at the mall! I even opted to get each girl a kids’ meal–another rare event for the Heldts, because kids’ meals tend to be a Horrible Value. And people with eight kids don’t buy things that are a Horrible Value. So we approached the Japanese food counter and got our noodles and sesame chicken and wontons and lemonades and soda, and sat down at a table.

Just the three of us, we sat and ate. I felt all fancy and glam and stuff because we were at the mall, and we’d shopped at Gymboree, and I decided this must be how the other side lives–the side not constantly chasing after cuties with Down syndrome and answering questions about birth control in the bread aisle, and sniffing bottoms every five minutes or so to figure out which of the three diaper-wearers had diarrhea AGAIN. I could actually kind of see the allure of this sort of existence, lunching in public places without causing a spectacle.

Until my five-year-old somehow spilled her entire lemonade. All over the table, me, my prized bags of name-brand dresses, and the floor. I dispatched my daughter to go get some napkins but shrugged it off in a smug, I’ve got this sort of way. Nobody knows it but I’ve got eight kids, I thought to myself, and this is SOOOOOOOOOO NBD. I’m not going to lose my cool over a silly spilled drink. Pshaw.

So the arrogant mom who *clearly* had it all together bent down with a confident smile to help clean up the mess–and that’s when my other daughter spilled HER entire lemonade. Now Alice is only two years old, and one might question the wisdom of giving her her own medium-sized fountain drink and straw in the first place. But then one remembers that this was a Special Outing to the Mall, and a Special Lunch With a Kids’ Meal. This time though I wasn’t smiling so much as shaking my head, and collecting as many flimsy napkins as I possibly could.  Inwardly cursing the day and feeling mighty vindicated for eating the bulk of our meals in the comfort of our own home. Because in the comfort of our own home we can make messes and clean them up with ratty old beach towels. But not at the mall. Where clearly, we didn’t belong.

And Alice, smart kid that she is, must have figured that out. She was bored with the running-over-to-the-Japanese-food-counter-for-napkins-and-running-back-to-clean-up-the-mess routine, and decided to take off. I’m not entirely sure where she was planning to go, but it probably doesn’t matter anyway, because she’s just independent like that. Does her own thing. Thinks she’s too good for everybody. So it made sense that she would take a huge bite of chicken, grab her bowl of food with her chubby little hands, and set off into the sunset. Of course I saw her trying to escape, and went after her. Mom to eight kids and all that. Not my first time at the rodeo. But that’s when things REALLY went downhill, because she dropped her bowl of food all over the floor, started screaming, and slipped in the resulting grease–landing flat on her back in a sea of noodles and people. Like a cartoon character. It was at this point where I was like I JUST CAN’T EVEN, and hastily piled all the food BACK into the bowl, and tried to seek out somebody to help us with the ever-growing mess. After letting the kind man at the food counter know about all of it, I flagged down a janitorial staff member (is that what they’re called? I don’t know, but she had a mop), and said “Excuse me, the person at the Japanese food counter wanted me to let you know that—”

“Did somebody throw up?” she interrupted. Clearly this wasn’t her first time at the rodeo either. But I would make her happy. I would tell her it was just lemonade and chicken grease. I would tell her I wasn’t like those other puking-kid-moms at the mall.

“No! No throw-up! Just some lemonade my daughters spilled!” I was beaming.

And she looked me right in the eye, and said “SH*&!!!!!!!”

My face must have fallen, because she quickly apologized. I on the other hand just ducked my head, mumbled a sorry, and reclaimed my sticky purse, my sticky bags of sticky dresses, and my sticky kids with their sticky leftovers, and fled from the scene.

Because profanity might be MY natural inner-response to a spill when, hello, I don’t have my trusty stained beach towels around–but this woman had a mop and a bucket! She should have been relieved that no bodily fluids were spilled in the making of our mess! Does she not know that I had a kid poop their pants at a flea market one time? It could be so much worse! But instead she was mad, or at the very least annoyed, and so I slunk away in shame. My kids had made a mess. I hadn’t been able to fix all of it. I inconvenienced somebody.

I was an epic mall fail.

Now when I was fleeing (or slinking), I wasn’t exactly paying attention to the direction I was going. I thought we were, you know, exiting the mall. But no. We were winding deep into the bowels of the place, far far away from where we’d parked our blessed getaway car, with Mary carrying the two bowls of food, Alice trailing behind yelling and crying because SHE WANTED THE REST OF HER LUNCH RIGHT THIS MOMENT, and me shouldering the bags and my soda–because heck if I was going to throw it in the garbage. I had big plans to sip and savor the thing on the drive home, when my girls would inevitably fall into a deep sleep after our harrowing afternoon, and I would sing along to Ed Sheeran. But. Remember how I said Alice was screaming and crying? Yeah, all through the mall. Past all the stores. Past all the people. Wouldn’t let me pick her up. Kept chasing after Mary and the food, arms outstretched like a sad, angry little dictator. And we kept circling around, trying to find our way out, unable to cut through respectable stores like Super Target because of all the crying and the food. Better to stay out in the periphery where all the random shoppers and cell phone hucksters were, I reasoned, lest anyone else be privy to the live production of Purgatory for Mothers.

It was then, as we were trudging along, that we came upon one of those coin operated ride-on machines. It was out of order. But it didn’t matter, because Alice was suddenly happy! Pointing and shouting and climbing, and pushing buttons. I took the opportunity to collect my wits and steel myself against the rest of the stroller-less mission to locate and reach the car. I had a drink of my beloved soda. But then I decided it was time to move along. And Alice wouldn’t have it. NO! she declared, clinging stubbornly to the stupid plastic motorcycle. So I did what any mom worth her salt would do, and I wrestled her into my arms and off the lifeless toy. She wasn’t going to win, and we were going home.

And in doing so, I spilled my soda.

All over the play equipment. And the floor. And myself.

I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream. I wanted to yell. Because life is HARD when you’re a mom! And so unfair! We’d spent our entire Spring Break convalescing like a bunch of invalids with colds and fevers, and this was our first day out. This was our trip to THE MALL. This was our forgoing PB&Js for overpriced Chinese food masquerading as Japanese food. This was our day of kids’ meals. This was the day when I got a soda. This was the day when I got to be Mom to Only Two Kids. But no. Instead, there were three spills, one dumped plate of food that resulted in a fall, and one tantruming toddler. Oh and one sweating mother.

Anyone looking on would have assumed I was a newish mom. Nobody would have seen me and known that I actually once had three kids ages two and under. Or that in my tenure as mom I’ve done battle with lice, parasites, open heart surgery, learning delays, and bad tween attitudes. They’d never assume that I also drive a big passenger van, or that when we go to Costco we use two carts to haul all of our kids and food. They couldn’t see that my Gymboree bags were filled with six beautiful dresses for my six beautiful daughters, who love any excuse to dress up. No, I blended in that day, except for all the screaming and spilling and hidden mental anguish. And do you know what’s funny? Do you know what I really wanted to tell everybody that passed by our hot mess? I wanted to tell them that no, we don’t have our act together, but it totally doesn’t matter.

Because one thing being a mom-to-many has taught me is to not take myself too seriously. To not put so much stock in appearances or social constructs that I end up shouldering the world. Yep, I’m the idiot who decided to drag two little kids, sans stroller, through the mall at naptime. I’m the moron who dumped her soda all over the plastic motorcycle and yeah, I’m the mom of the kid that slipped and fell in her own lunch. I’m the lady that decided pretend Japanese food was a good idea for lunch. That’s me! Over here! With the screaming toddler! And I can’t find my car! But it’s all good, because you see motherhood is tough. The struggle is real. I work my butt off and don’t make a dime, and my work doesn’t ever really end because at 4 am a kid might show up to my bedroom door, telling me they did indeed throw up, and I go running for the beach towels. I gave up on trying to be cool and hip a long time ago, and now the highlight of my week is usually watching an old TV show on our old TV with my husband, in bed.

And do you know what else? I love my life! I wouldn’t trade it! There’s FREEDOM in ditching the culture’s expectations for mothers. If I want to go bargain hunting for Easter dresses with my two bitty kids at a ridiculous time of day, I’m gonna do it. If I want to stay home in pajamas all day the next day and hide from the world, I’ll do that too. It’s whatevs. I’m not ashamed to say I prefer simplicity and the mundane, but I’ll also say it’s an acquired taste. It’s taken years to hone. There is joy in the little things, in the smallness of life. And it’s hard to see sometimes, unless you’re forced to look multiple toddlers and medical needs and chaos and spilled lemonades SQUARE IN THE EYE. You go into survival mode and realize that it’s actually not such a bad spot to be in, because what really, truly matters always manages to slip into focus. And you’re never really alone, because lots of other moms are there too. We’re all in this together.

Eventually, I found the mall’s exit and my car (both were RIGHT BY THE FOOD COURT. Who knew?). My daughters did drift off into a sweet slumber on the drive home and, even though I didn’t have my soda (boo), I soaked up the sunshine and enjoyed twenty minutes of peace and quiet. My husband called me on my cell phone, and I got to laugh and tell him about our day. Which was, you know, just another day in the life when you’re a family. There was good and bad and funny and sad. Then the littles and I spent an hour or so at home, before heading back out to pick up kids from school. Then we got kids from the bus. Then my house transformed into the usual weekday afternoon cacophony of laughter and “I need help with homework!” and kids petting (and shouting at, depending on age and stage) the cat on the deck. There was listening and dancing to the Doc McStuffins CD one of my girls had checked out from the library—she’d thought it was a DVD, and was initially so disappointed to discover her mistake, but has since decided she loves gathering her siblings in the basement and rocking out to the music. My husband had to work late so kids had sandwiches for dinner (PB&J), and a bunch of them played outside long into the evening. Then it was showers, and cozy pjs and the convos they always want to have with me in those precious moments before bedtime, when they are settling in and pondering the day’s events.

Speaking of the day’s events, did I mention I went to the mall? And had a downright horrible time? And made the food court cleaning woman swear?

Well, I did. Sometimes I’m a disaster out in public. I own it. I have to. Because I’m a mother. And small kids are wildly unpredictable and delightfully uncouth. Occasionally they do embarrassing things like marching through the mall screaming, with chow mein on their face and chicken on their back. They do weird stuff when they’re older, too.  Trust me.  Sometimes even adults spill their prized drinks.

So I laugh, do my best to clean it all up, and I move on. It’s real life, and it’s my life, and I really kind of love it.

Happy Easter + Giveaway Winner

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Easter 2015

Happy Easter, friends!

 

117We celebrated in our usual way: Easter Vigil Mass on Saturday night, huge celebration and feast immediately following, finally getting home and going to sleep around 1:30 am, up early the next morning for hunting eggs at church, and then a relaxing day at home spent eating lots of sweets and ham.

 

122The vigil was amazing as always, and my kids got to participate in some wonderful ways.  My sons served at the altar, and my two oldest daughters handed out candles and helped adorn the front of the church with flowers during the Gloria.  One of my girls served in the sacristy.  It was a beautiful and profoundly moving experience.  No surprise then that my kids, all eight of ‘em, look forward to this three-hour vigil Mass every single year!

 

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P.S.  Alice hates the Easter Bunny.  As evidenced by the fact that she’s running away from him as quickly as her little legs will carry her.  Now Alice’s friend Nola doesn’t seem too sure about the bunny either–although her dad, unlike my husband, seemed to be more concerned about carrying her to safety than taking a picture of a terrified child.  And yes, my kids always look like disheveled urchins at the Sunday morning egg hunt, because we were up all night for the vigil and dinner.  And then we stumble out of bed, throw on some clothes and go.  So when everyone else is in their Easter finest for the morning Mass, the Heldts roll up looking like this.

P.P.S.  It’s time to announce the randomly selected winner of the $50 shop credit to Minted!  And it is…drumroll please…Liz!  Congratulations!  Be watching your inbox for the code, and happy shopping!  Thanks to all who participated–hopefully there will be more giveaways to come.

P.P.S.S. From our family to yours, may you have a lovely Easter season celebrating and rejoicing in the resurrection of our Lord.  What hope we have in Christ!

I’m Not a Craft Mom

063Yesterday I shared on my podcast about how and why I converted to Catholicism.

Making the leap isn’t easy, as most converts will tell you.

And then once you do enter into the fullness of the faith, everything is so new and foreign.

Like, you know, statues. And feasts and solemnities. There’s incense and Latin and saints, and then there are the various aspects of Catholic culture.

Although my kids attend school now, I was homeschooling when we became Catholic, and my first group of Catholic girlfriends I met through our parish homeschooling co-op. I’d done a ton of reading about Catholic theology and history prior to coming into the Church, and fancied myself as someone relatively well acquainted with Catholic doctrine, but these women knew stuff I didn’t. They celebrated feast days with their kids, and somebody baked something really cool called a King’s Cake once, and apparently you’re supposed to put chocolate coins in your kids’ shoes in December (not sure I’d allow my sons to eat ANYTHING that had been in their shoes, but that’s beside the point). Unlike everybody else, my kids hadn’t been named after saints. They knew stuff about the Bible, but they didn’t know the Morning Offering prayer.

It was the first time we were completely out of our element in a religious setting.

And honestly, it was great. We—yes, me as much as my kids—learned so much in our sweet co-op. I feel like it was a crash course in Catholicism for Kids, and one of the brightest spots in our years of homeschooling. We built friendships there, which were especially important after abruptly leaving our Protestant faith community.

But it’s funny too because unlike the other moms, I could never quite get the hang of the feast day celebrations and crafts and such. Probably because of the crafts, which make me want to go screaming and running into the night. True story: yesterday I had to make a quick run to Walmart to get some clay for something my daughter’s making at school, and I about had a panic attack walking down the craft supplies aisle. Beads and buttons and those foam things and wooden objects waiting to be painted, and mod podge. Oh good grief. But anyway, I realized a few years ago that, you know, I’m not a crafty mom, and I’m apparently also not one to make a huge deal out of all the feast days. Mostly because we’re kind of just trying to survive over here. We would get books from the library and read about the various saints, and maybe have a discussion, because that is just more my speed. But making pretzels in the shape of St. Nicholas’ staff? Forget about it.

I’m pretty sure it’s not even called a staff.

My poor kids.

This was part of my issue with homeschooling, in general. I just do not like hands-on activities, I refuse to buy glitter because IT IS EVIL, and the thought of running science experiments in my own kitchen makes me cringey. Anytime I was on deck to help with an activity at our co-op, I felt badly for the other moms because I never had any good ideas. I just kind of sat there and nodded, and prayed that they wouldn’t ask me to Lead the Craft. Or Plan a Game. What I loved most about home educating was the lively discussion around our dining room table, and seeing my daughter reading thick books for hours upon hours each afternoon. I liked reading history and the Bible and yes the saint stories to them, and seeing how their minds worked.

But the other stuff I hated.  I mean I like for my kids to get to do it, but I have no interest or skill in facilitating it.

There was a time in my life when I might have seen all these amazing Catholic homeschooling moms, and been tempted to feel badly about my lack of creativity when it comes to kids’ liturgical activities. But no. I’m comfortable enough in my own skin to admit my strengths and my weaknesses. I’m not a great event planner. I would NEVER, ever have gone into the teaching profession. I’m not great with kids. (Yes, you really can have eight children while thinking that running a daycare would be the worst job ever.)

But there ARE people who DO excel in these areas. Who love all of it, or at least most of it. They make great homeschoolers, and they make great teachers, and I’m thankful every single day for the people who instruct my kids and let them do amazing art projects, even when they require me to brave the craft aisle for clay. And I’m thankful for the beautiful homeschooling moms from our co-op, who introduced our family to Catholic culture. We fell in love with Mary and the saints there. And they never made fun of me for my co-op running deficits.

We all have gifts. Not all gifts will translate into the stuff that makes for lots of oohhhhs and aahhhhs from the other moms, but that’s okay! No mother should feel like she has to apologize for not homeschooling, for not sewing, for not throwing Pinterest-worthy parties, or for forgetting to put candy in bacteria-laden shoes. I made peace with my lack of crafting abilities a long time ago, and I’m better for it. (Trust me. Anytime I tried to do something it wound up being a waste of time and money, and looked like garbage.) I sent my kids off to school this past fall, and they’re better for it. Be comfortable with who you are and embrace your gifts, and don’t compare yourself to other people in a judgey way, because then you can appreciate their gifts. Which I think about anytime I see one of my uber creative and talented friends doing something amazing. Yay for these people, when I can scarcely draw a stick figure!

The way I see it, we’re all doing the best we can. Parenting is HARD. There is no Gold Standard other than love.

And thankfully that is not dependent upon whether or not you can make sugar cookies that resemble Our Lady of Guadalupe.