Parenthood is all about “Pantsing”


pexels-photo-434446.jpegOnce, I was talking to a favorite uncle about life and all deep things. Because that’s what we do. (He’s a great uncle.) I said, “You know, when I was a kid, and something was bothering me, I’d think it through and make up my mind what to do about it, and that was it. I never questioned it again. Now, I never stop questioning things, no matter how many times I make up my mind.”

My uncle laughed. “Welcome to adulthood,” he said.

I was thinking about this last night as I listened to one of my children baring his soul about an experience that had hurt him deeply. It wasn’t a situation with a simple solution. He wasn’t at fault, but he was letting it get to him far more than was necessary or healthy. I told him what he had experienced was always going to be irritating—like mosquitoes you can’t escape—but he has a choice whether he opens up his heart and lets it hurt him down deep. Even though it doesn’t feel like he has a choice. That he feels things more deeply than other people do, and the first thing is to know that about himself.

A deep, heavy sigh. “Mom, I thought you’d be able to help me. Give me some advice or something that would help.”

Oohf. Speaking of opening up one’s heart and letting things hurt you down deep. This is not how a mom wants to be viewed by her child: as impotent. This is not how a mom wants to BE to her child.

Writers tend to split themselves into two camps: plotters and pantsers. (Those seem self-explanatory to me, but just in case: Plotters have a global plan in place before they embark on a novel; pantsers fly by the seat of their pants.) I’m sure it’s no surprise to anyone reading this post that I’m a confirmed plotter. Without a plan I would have no idea which way to go. I would write 5,000 words and then hit a huge wall, because I wouldn’t know where to go. It’s too big a task.

That’s how I feel about life, too. I want a plan, a way to organize the things that are Too Big, the things that are Too Much For Me. This is how I deal with anxiety: by planning for contingencies. Even when plans A, B, and C get derailed, merely having thought through everything prepares me for flying by the seat of my pants.

Last night on our oh-so-romantic Valentine’s date at Denny’s, Christian and I were discussing parenthood, and we came to the realization that although we are plotters by nature, parenthood is really a game of pantsing. You’re totally making it up as you go along.

No wonder we all make such a mess of it.

What I Learned About Myself While Traveling

View From The Back Seat

The view from the back seat. Hard to get mountain pics from there! Mostly you get Mom. Note: I LLLLOVED this vehicle. Chrysler Pacifica, possibly a hybrid.

I learned something about myself in traveling these past two weeks. When I’m in charge of travel, I’m susceptible to some pretty strong anxiety.

I like traveling. I like experiencing the world, seeing new places. I like it a lot, in fact. But until last weekend, I didn’t realize how stressful I would find it to be The Responsible Party for a major trip—you know, airport security, anxious child, rental car, driving in a remote mountain area. Until last weekend, I hadn’t really sympathized with the stress Christian feels when we travel as a family. You know how it is—in a marriage, one person takes lead in certain areas (mine are kid logistics, meals, and family scheduling) and the other takes the lead in another. One of Christian’s areas has always been travel arrangements; I’ve always been the support personnel.

Halloween Olympics

We didn’t win these Halloween Olympic golds by ourselves, but since I didn’t warn the other 10 people on our team that I blog, I figured I wouldn’t post pics of them. 🙂

Last weekend it was just me and Nicholas. It was supposed to be a 3-hour road trip from the airport to our destination, but it ended up taking nearly five. Services signage on the Pennsylvania Turnpike is basically nonexistent. We had to just pick an exit and hope there would be food and gas there, and we ended up in a traffic snarl. Then there was the chocolate factory stop—we saw it on the Philadelphia map and since one of my goals for Nicholas on this trip was teaching him to navigate by a real map (gasp!), I had him give me directions. I was smart enough to study in advance and get a general idea of where I was going, but the map was not exactly…complete.

We found our way, but we asked a local for directions on the way out.

And lest anyone be thinking, “If you’d just follow Google”…. We had a classic Google Maps fail, too. The kind where the directions said, “Continue straight onto No-Name Road,” which didn’t exist, though there was some other road there. One-lane. Like a private drive. Turning to gravel. And then dirt. With road construction vehicles, and forest pressing in on both sides. We had to backtrack 8 miles of 25 mph mountain roads to find another route.

And of course, I don’t have a smart phone, so I couldn’t default to following the GPS. (The resort recommended not relying on GPS anyway, but I am perfectly willing to admit when it’s time for me to bow to reality; I remain a smart phone conscientious objector, but following this trip I am willing to admit that I need a phone that will allow me to buy internet minutes in order to access GPS if I get lost.)

But it’s always the getting there that causes the stress. Actually being there was…wonderful. We could not have enjoyed ourselves more. The pool, the paddleboat, the kayak, the shuffleboard, the Halloween Olympics, the food, the bumper boats…there was nothing not to like about this place. We settled in and didn’t budge all weekend. We even attended Mass virtually so we wouldn’t have to leave the property.

Poconos 2

At the end of the weekend, I wanted to spend a couple hours at Valley Forge on the way back to the airport, partly for my own sake, but mostly to add a veneer of education to taking Nicholas out of school. We made it, but we had signage issues on the Turnpike again—another Google maps fail, as they don’t give you exit numbers, only mileage amounts, and so I was looking for I-476, not the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and when the sign said “Penna Turnpike—Scranton-Harrisburg”—and NOT Philadelphia (how can they NOT HAVE PHILADELPHIA ON THAT SIGN????)—well, suffice it to say I missed the exit and blew 15 minutes getting turned around.

Somewhere on that last 30 miles down the Pennsylvania Turnpike, with traffic backing up and stopping and the minutes we had for visiting the national park ticking away, I realized that my blood pressure was sky-high and all my venting was adding considerably to my son’s anxiety levels. After that I toned it down a lot, but it made me realize how much impact my own anxiety has on other members of my family.

It also made me reconsider our approach to family trips in general. Upon coming home and hearing my stories, Christian laughed and said, “I’m kind of glad you had this experience, because now you know how I feel on trips.” We decided it was time to rethink the way we split up the duties on these trips. He has to give up some control and I have to take some responsibility—and we both have to be willing not to get mad at each other when things go wrong, as they inevitably will.

One of the things they say about travel is that it’s educational. I always knew that—I guess I just didn’t realize they meant you’d be learning about yourself.

If You’re Not Outraged…


Photo by Samovaari, via Flickr

We’ve been angry a lot this calendar year. Last calendar year, too, truth be told. The world seems made for making us angry right now.

But it came to a head in the last week, and in one of those convergences that can only be a sign of the Holy Spirit at work, for three days every single thing that happened served to put a neon flashing light on the message: THIS IS NOT OKAY. Even the weekend’s Scriptures.

It’s not that there isn’t reason to be angry. And as many people note, even Jesus got angry, knocking over tables in the Temple when he saw it being misused.

The trouble is, at some point, we start clinging to anger—we start looking for reasons to be angry, to the point that we become unable to accept with grace any thwarting of our own convenience, any deviation from our own vision of how things should be. And let’s be honest: there’s a whole heck of a lot about the world that is Not How It Should Be.

The convergence of messaging challenges me…my whole family, really…to figure out how to confront the Things That Aren’t How They Ought To Be without making anger an idol enshrined in our hearts.

I haven’t figured that part out yet. It’s the start of a new journey.

You say Self”ish”, I Say Self”less”


Image by Damian Gadal, via Flickr

I’ll admit it: I totally blew it last summer. I tried to extend my “work-year” to ten months by putting kids in summer school, promising myself that it would be enough to do weekly field trips during July and August. But the first ten days of July were taken up with our triple-duty trip to Michigan. Which was a great trip, but by the time I’d put the energy into planning logistics, making arrangements, juggling family and conference, and getting the travel write-ups done, I just wanted a couple weeks off planning anything at all! And then there was one thing and another and another, and by the time it was over, we only managed to do one field trip the entire summer.

The kids were excruciatingly bored.

Summer or not, I need to be able to work. On the other hand, I can’t expect to work as much as I do when the kids are in school. And that can be hard to stomach when it seems like the trajectory of my writing career is trending upward.

Am I alone in feeling that tug-of-war between the suffixes “-ish” and “-less”?

As in: self-ISH vs. self-LESS?

The parent-vs.-work fulfillment dynamic is where it shows most clearly for me, but it also comes into play every time I find myself in conflict with others. My identity as a Christian means I place high value on self-emptying. And yet there is a point at which I have the right to say, “Hey. I deserve respect, too.”

But it’s very hard to figure out where that line falls. I have conditioned myself to give way to everyone else. To take blame in order to keep peace. To take blame in order to teach my children the skill of apologizing. To take blame (at least partial) even when I don’t think I did anything wrong, because that’s what it means to resolve conflict.

Lately, I’m feeling that I’ve let it go too far.

But it’s very, very hard to draw a line and assert myself. I feel selfish.

Still, if all my personal wrestling with the idea of “balance” has taught me anything, it is that the tension in that tug-of-war rope keeps me honest.

So I’ve spent a decent amount of time the last two weeks with a pencil and a three-month calendar, figuring out how to set aside time for the kids this summer while still leaving myself time to work. And I’m spending a lot of time thinking through conflict, trying to see other points of view without applying an internal narrative that negates my own.

And I guess that’s the best I can do.

The Power Of Laughter


Blog-silly glassesLast night, while I was singing at church, my husband caught my eye from the pew where he was sitting and cracked a silent joke. Without ever saying a word, with nothing more than a look and a simple gesture, he made me laugh.

I really love being married to someone who can make me laugh. Because I am, by nature, a little too serious and a little too artistic-moody for my own good. Sometimes I try not to laugh. Sometimes, just like a little kid, I cling to a bad mood. Other times I am living too much in my head. But I’m always happier when I give in and let myself laugh.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately, because the feature story I’m working on at present is about infertility, and more than one of my sources talked about how they’d approached this exceptionally painful subject from a much more pragmatic, accepting standpoint—one that had a lot less angst and was a lot less debilitating to ordinary life. They talked about enjoying their time together, and not letting grief ruin their entire existence.

I’m pretty sure I let infertility ruin my entire existence for those three years.

But if I go farther back, to the days when both Christian and I were “freaking out,” I remember a night when we both started laughing about something. I can’t remember what, but I remember it was a really good, hearty laugh, and it relaxed the hard, hot spot in my chest. For just a moment, it banished the fear and the second (and third, and fourth) guessing. And I remember saying to him, “As long as we can laugh together, we’ll be all right.”

I think we might just have to adopt that as our family motto.

Small Things, Great Love (Reblog)


blogger-image--817386017The past two weeks.  It has almost been too much to bear, all the heartache.  All the hatred and the hurting and brokenness everywhere we turn.  It is too much.  I am tempted to shut it out: turn off the news, avoid the rapid-fire of social media politicking.  Sink into my own comfortable life, where my biggest inconveniences of the day revolve around the fact that we have too many clothes to wash in our HE washer in our house with electricity and running water.  Continue about my day to day life, free from stigma of skin color, free from fear of opression and violence.  

What can I do about all that is wrong in this world?  I am often paralyzed by insignificance.  I don’t work in a job where I make or carry out policy.  I know nothing about medicine.  I am not educated about how to approach issues of race in this country.  I don’t have the means to travel abroad or adopt an orphan.  I don’t know any refugees.  
When God allows our hearts to be broken, what is it for?  It can’t just be so that we feel sad for a few minutes or days until we forget. ….

The Deep, Dark Underbelly of Parenting (and how my attitude is still my own problem)

Give them rocks to climb and they won't fight. Oh wait. They had that fight over the walking stick, didn't they? Never mind...

Give them rocks to climb and they won’t fight. Oh wait. They had that fight over the walking stick, didn’t they? Never mind…

I was driving home last night from Julianna’s last horseback riding lesson of the year, and pondering what to write for a blog post today, when I realized Julianna and Michael were in the back seat, fighting over…

…wait for it…

…a dirty paper plate.

This was not the first fight of the afternoon, either. Two hours earlier, Nicholas and Michael had a screaming match over who got to use the electric piano at the piano teacher’s house that included a tug of war over the headphones. And they snapped the cover off one of the headphones.

Fortunately, in this case I was able to snap the cover back into place, and no harm was done. But they got the full scolding, including the words not okay, not acceptable, and who has to pay for the things you break when you’re fighting?

Several things occur to me this morning, as I sit outside typing this and listening to Michael shriek, “JUWEEANNA, *I* AM THE LEADER!” while they ride bikes before school.

But if they work together to try to, say, dig a trench from the wall seepage to the creek, you might just get forty-five minutes of peace and quiet.

But if they work together to try to, say, dig a trench from the wall seepage to the creek, you might just get forty-five minutes of peace and quiet.

One: Michael has definitely hit the age where he’s no longer the victim of sibling oppression, but a full and willing participant.

Two: Often when I do presentations on Down syndrome I get the question about how my boys view their sister’s disability. These illustrations make it very clear that the younger boys, who were not partners in her early intervention therapy, see no difference at all. She’s fair game in every way that ordinary siblings are. She gets no free passes in the Sibling School of Hard Knocks.

Three, and the main point: having children is without a doubt a powerful reminder that I have to choose my attitude, because life will always, always be full of irritations and frustrations.

I frequently feel like pulling my hair out when my kids start bickering. It’s usually so petty. I mean, really. A dirty paper plate? There’s not even a good story behind that one. It really was just a dirty paper plate. And fighting over the electric piano? They actually both had good cause to consider themselves justified in wanting that instrument. Michael got to it first, but the purpose of the piano being there at all is so that kids waiting for their own lessons can practice, and Nicholas wanted to—gasp—use the piano for its intended purpose.

But it never occurred to them that there was any way to resolve their dispute other than PULLING APART SOMEONE ELSE’S ELECTRONIC EQUIPMENT?????????

Excuse me for a moment while I take a deep breath. Or twelve.

The danger in failing to acknowledge the icky underbelly of family life on a blog is that you give the impression that your life is all unicorns and rainbows, thus making others feel inadequate.

But the danger in focusing on said icky underbelly is that it’s really, really easy to start seeing nothing else. You start thinking that your kids are going to grow up to be sociopaths, when in reality there are indications to the contrary. For instance:

A week ago, Christian dropped Julianna and me off at church on Wednesday night so she wouldn’t be late for “church school,” and then he took the boys and went to fill up the van with gas. The gas station happened to be next door to Taco Bell, and nobody had had dessert, so Christian decided to get them some of those amazing cream cheese-stuffed fried whatevers. And Nicholas put a check on Alex, who wanted to finish them, by saying, “But what about Julianna? Julianna didn’t get any.”

It’s hard to accept the self-absorption of young childhood, especially when your whole life is structured around meeting their needs ahead of your own. It doesn’t really matter how many times the experts tell you it’s normal. It always chafes. And that chafing draws attention to itself, to the point where sometimes you fail to recognize—or choose to ignore—the sweet moments, and cling to the problems.

When all those parenting surveys show how “less happy” people are after they’ve had kids, I think it is more an indicator of our own attitudes, which are, let’s face it, entirely in our control. Bad things happen. That doesn’t mean it has to ruin your entire life.

Thus concludes my daily self-pep talk. How about a funny Nicholas school paper?

That mile-long word?

That mile-long word? “Music.”

Suffering Isn’t Sexy, But It’s Been Good For Me


Wedding-8I was twenty-five when I got married, and I thought I was coming into it really late. By modern standards, of course, twenty-five is early, if anything, but I didn’t know that.

In point of fact, I didn’t know much of anything when I got married. About, well, anything. I thought I was a pretty smart, well-equipped young lady, but the truth is I just had a lot of opinions. And a lot of them were pretty smug and screamed “young” and “inexperienced.”

When we’d been married about six months, I got up early to make Christian breakfast on a Saturday, and when he wouldn’t get out of bed to eat it, I threw an almighty tantrum of weeping and resentment that makes me cringe to remember.

During some fight in those early months, I think I smacked him.

Sometimes, thinking back, I don’t understand how we managed to stay together, let alone create a marriage that has weathered so much and become so strong and life-giving, in every sense of the word.

But I think the answer is in the “weathering.”

Photo by Bo Insogna, via Flickr

It doesn’t happen often anymore, but there have definitely been times in my life when I’ve shaken my fist at the heavens and given God a piece of my mind about his version of “fair.” Anxiety. Infertility. Disability. ICU stays. We’ve dealt with more than our share of marital and family drama. But suffering through those difficult circumstances–and in the case of disability, the permanent reality—matured us. Both of us, but in particular I reflect upon it in myself. When I got married I was incredibly self-absorbed, with a child’s black and white, all-or-nothing view of the world. Suffering is the vehicle that gave me depth and wisdom and understanding, and whatever modicum of patience I now possess.

Christians wrestle with the concept of suffering, and non-Christians even more so. We get all twisted up in whether good can come of it or whether it’s utterly useless. We do everything possible to avoid it ourselves, and run for the hills when casual acquaintances face it alone. We view it by turns as a test from God or punishment from God, or proof that He doesn’t exist at all.

But the truth is that suffering is the only way we grow as people. Suffering is what sensitizes us to the beauty of the ordinary—what puts into perspective the things that really matter and the things that don’t. It’s what teaches us empathy.

Suffering is what makes us better people—as long as we approach it with openness and an eye to learning, instead of rage and resistance, which lead to bitterness.

I wouldn’t go back to those hard times in my life. But I wouldn’t trade them, either.

Unrecognized Blessings


Julianna’s Sure Steps inserts, which cost way more than you’d think. Step aside, Prada.

It was fifteen minutes until Mass started, and we couldn’t find Julianna’s shoes.

Or more accurately, one of her shoes.

Now, to understand the full significance of this, you have to realize, first, that Alex was serving and he was supposed to be at church fifteen minutes ahead of time—and second, that Julianna only owns one pair of shoes.

So when Julianna is missing a shoe, it is a big deal. With the boys, I’d just say, “Whatever! It’s 80 degrees outside, go barefoot!” (Although probably not to church.) But Julianna walks on the inside of her feet. Barefoot is not a good idea.

I get very stressed when I get pressured. If I leave myself plenty of time, I can get the kids out of the house by myself without raising my voice at all. But put me in a last-minute situation, and I completely lose my head. With one shoe and insert perched at the top of the staircase, and the other one MIA, I tried to trace backwards and remember when and where it was that I saw her limping around the house with one shoe on and one foot bare—but my brain froze. And I kind of panicked.

Christian, disgusted, ordered me to the car to take Alex ahead while he looked for the missing shoe.

Alex was too late to serve, which would have crushed him except that we ended up getting to sit next to his BFF. Christian arrived in the middle of the opening song and managed to find us, tucked into the middle of the crowded church where we never ordinarily sit. But there wasn’t room in our pew, so he and the younger three sat behind me, while Alex and his bestie sat a row ahead of me.

And I had no one to supervise during Mass.

I took advantage of the rare mental space to try to focus on the prayers in a way I normally am not able to. I noticed the undercurrent of children’s voices undulating beneath the liturgical action—so many, many children. I knew we had lots of families, but I’d never appreciated before how just how many—how young our parish is, when so many parishes are aging out.

And thus sensitized, I realized anew how rich my life is. The fact that all the chaos around me is a result of that richness, that it flows from the outpouring of blessings I almost never take time to appreciate. If I hadn’t been given so much, I wouldn’t have so much to do.

Blog-Floridian gingerbread house

It was a beautiful moment that made the rest of the day look a little more placid and colorful than usual.

And in case you’re wondering about the mysterious hiding place of the shoe?

It was in her closet.

Who, Me?


Photo by Matthieu Bertrand Struck, via Flickr

I have lots of opinions.

I’m sure this comes as no surprise to anyone reading this blog. But living with a public relations officer has taught me to think before I speak. (Usually.) Especially when people come up to me at ordinations and conventions and say, “I read your blog.” Mine is a Bumbo chair in a little tiny corner of the e-universe…and yet it is not without impact. I have a responsibility.

It’s surprising to find myself in this place, truthfully. I struggle with pride, and yet so often I smack up against the inadequacy of my knowledge and understanding—my total lack of qualification to issue judgments on any subject. When I was first approached about doing a column for Liguorian magazine, I remember clearly that my first reaction—quickly squelched—was: “Who, me?”

That reaction bubbles up when I see Facebook discussions and email arguments debates (my family specializes in those), and in my gut reactions to things I see on the news. I know what I think. But too many times I’ve taken an absolute position on things, only to feel like a real jackass when the context or the ripple effects become clear, and I realize that what seemed clear-cut is anything but.

I try not to react anymore.

I try to think my way through things, ask the questions, look for the mitigating circumstances. Usually, it takes me about two seconds to realize I don’t know enough to have an educated opinion in the first place. I don’t participate much in online discussions, partly because I know how much I don’t know, and partly because I don’t think anybody’s really listening anyway. Most of the time I just absorb as things unfold, trying to sort through the nuances until I come to some sort of reasoned conclusion—which is usually that both sides of an argument have a point, even if one far outweighs the other.

People throughout the publishing world—both music and fiction/nonfiction—often bemoan the amount of trash that gets sent out into the world. “It’s so easy to make something look professional these days,” they say. “It’s easy to fall in love with how pretty your piece of music/short story/essay looks on the page, and not view it with a critical eye.”

The same thing applies in the way we interact online. It’s beautifully easy to grace the entire world with my opinion. And it looks so nice on the screen. And I love to see how many “likes” or retweets come out of it. But wrestling with the topic of diversity has made me realize how easy it is to surround ourselves primarily with people who always agree with us, who never challenge us to question our assumptions—who never, in short, invite us to become more than we already are.

We could use a little more “Who, me?” in our world. A little more acknowledgment that the world is a complex place and that our view of it is only a little sliver, after all. That the insight and experiences of others can inform as well as unsettle our dearly-held convictions, and that we will be better human beings for it.