I'm learning that many of the things I imagined I required from my growing children are idealistic at best and ridiculously, squashably unattainable at worst. I expected that I'd need to patiently explain things to them only once. They'd then nod with an otherworldly wisdom and move on from there, bettered little creatures, never again to struggle with this same issue.
I imagined that they'd smell of roses and sunshine. And only perhaps other flower species, varying from child to child, because in my mind, I magnanimously allowed for individual differences.
I dreamed that they would excel at everything they put their hands to, for I knew in my heart that they would be unusually gifted children, cut not of ordinary cloth, but of shinier, more ethereal stuff.
I knew that they would be fairy-tale children, leaving harmonious relationships and bubblegummy peace in their wakes. So when I learned that my glimmering Thumbelina had been teasing her friend about her dependency upon Goodnights at the ripe old age of 10, I very nearly couldn't believe it. In fact, I may not have, were it not for the fact that the Mama to the little girl in question very lovingly, very gently, told me all about it. She wasn't the kind of Mama who seeks to bring shame to other mothers so that she can feel better about her own parenting repertoire, but was a gentle, lovely, laughing One who told me in such a way so as to spare my maternal dignity because she knew that I wanted - nay needed - to know. How else was I to help my little girl out of the place which found her delighting in the shame of someone else? My Thumbelina seemed a little less glittery on that day. But she became more substantial, too and less vaporous and more mine.
My Pinocchios, too, become more real the farther through life they go. Or at least their Mother begins to see them for who they really are, which is flesh-and-blood children who need loves and cuddles and no more maternal blind eyes cast their way, glossing over imperfections, imagining them to be faultless. The fruitless hope that if maybe I squeeze my eyes closed tightly enough, then maybe their weaknesses might just be rendered nonexistent is just that: fruitless. It's naive and it's hollow. And it precludes real relationship with these real little people. It makes them think that maybe they should default to lying to me, their doting, exacting mother, so as not to burst her hot air balloon propelling her through her land of make-believe. That land is a lonely one, though the glitter floats everywhere.
So now as I love them, I try to do so with my eyes open wide. I remind myself (for it does not come naturally to me, as I am inclined toward being pridefully perfectionistic) to be open about my own failings so as to set the stage for a child-like version of just that same thing: an open sharing of failings. I want for them to know that they can share all of themselves with me and know in their bones that I will always love them. And I will love them all the more because they are not imaginary figments of my fairy-tale imagination. They get dirt underneath their very tangible fingernails and they tattle and they work themselves up into dramatic fits, satisfying only to themselves in the very middle of that moment. They exaggerate. They stay up late, sometimes, past their bedtimes. I sometimes find granola bar wrappers under their beds, stashed clandestinely. They try to leave quickly on their bike rides without helmets, before I can see their bare heads and I love them so much. Bare-headed, dirty-fingernailed, wonderful little people.
It's occured to me recently that I generally blog about all the Susie-Sunshine moments of my life. And for fear of giving you a falsely one-dimensional picture of my life and myself, I feel inclined to share an unattractive little something about me and my heart. Sound intriguing? I'm hoping that in the sharing, I'll find some measure of cathartic accountability and that the following story will feature one of the very last episodes of this particular grossness in my life.
I've been such a sucker today. And not in a benign, goodness-me-I'm-so-cute-in-my-self-deprecation sort of way. While visiting with a friend this morning, I found myself giving vent to some really unattractive parts of myself as I elaborated upon the shortcomings of another person. At the very least, you'll ask, did I keep it short and sweet, keeping it to a strict recounting of objective detail? O no. I languished in the telling of my tale. I didn't gloss over this unsuspecting person's less attractive qualities. Instead, like a dog who's just discovered the pungant rot of something dead, I rolled around in it, thoroughly imbedding the stink of it into my fur. If I'm going to be honest, I'd have to say that the filth was satisfying to roll around in. For the brief moment of the telling of it. But for that brief moment only, as is the way of these things.
The part that I find so especially disturbing is that it was only after the fact that I felt badly about my behaviour. I wish to be that woman who doesn't feel inclined to do these ignoble things to begin with. I wish to be that woman who doesn't have to show up, woefully after the fact, tail between her legs, offering up feeble apologies because she's been so stupid, so tasteless, so unthinking.
The other part that bothers me is that part of how I define myself inside my own head is being just the very opposite sort of woman. I tell myself that I hate gossip. When I hear it lofted up on the wind in elementary school line-ups from the really cranky mothers, I feel repelled. I try to stand as far away from these people as possible. I like happy women spilling out happy talk who wish the whole world well. I love these women because, to me, they emanate wholeness and beauty. They don't need to poke their bitter stick at the life of another to feel momentarily better about their own. And yet, despite all this, for a far-too-big chunk of my day yesterday, I was that bitter woman with her venomous stick.
Every now and then as a stay-at-home mom, I feel stabs of defensiveness, as though I need justify my lack of a more formal and lofty profession to those more erudite people out there I imagine are judging me. The truth is probably that these people reflect upon me and the role I play in this world rarely to never. As I ponder this, I feel irked with myself that I defer, even rarely and inside the confines of my own head, to what others think of me. I know my real power comes from from the Hope I have in Christ and the consequent wholeness He brings in me by degrees - sometimes excruciatingly slowly - and not from what others may think of me. And yet, knowing and believing all this, sometimes I still feel these aforementioned stabs. And until very recently all these cerebral wrestlings felt valid and big. Now they've begun to smack of the anguished cries of rich lawyers in love. Because recently I've begun to be acquainted with powerlessness on a whole other level.
I am a youthful first-world person whose limbs obey her every command. When I wish to use the washroom, I simply do so with a blase dignity dependant upon complete privacy. My body is strong and I cook and eat whatever I most wish to on any given day. If I don't feel like zucchini, then I steam asparagus. I remember each of my children and their vivid, noisy stories fill my brain and my kitchen. I have all the money I need and I don't ever have to worry about how I'll possibly get to Walmart to replace my ratty old pants which were my last decent pair. I'm not consigned to pacing hallways, anxiously wringing my softly veiny hands, wondering why my husband won't come pick me up to take me home, wondering even, if he might not love me anymore. In short, I am of the ranks of this world's powerful. In light of this, my silly need to prove my stay-at-home-mom self to those who may look down upon the role seems more than a bit ridiculous.
Before my recent forays to the senior's home - that combined beautiful and exquisitely sad place - I'd never stopped to think about it. I'd taken my power and my freedom for granted, with only the brief blip of an exception in the form of the very occasional flu or migraine to mar my nearly complete autonomy. I now see - blurrily no doubt - how rich I've been and also how stunningly ungrateful. I don't stop in the middle of mopping my floors to note how delightfully pain-free my joints are. I don't wake in the morning marvelling at the powerful beauty of the fact that I am loved. It doesn't occur to me to be thankful for trips to the grocery store that instead, I'm more inclined to gripe about, that allow me to choose whatever I like to prepare and feed my family. The fact that I can afford seedless green grapes seems like a given. My fingers cooperate with my whims and I knit if I feel like knitting or I read with my perfect, cateract-free eyes if I feel like reading. I run and go to Zumba classes with the best of them and now, suddenly, I feel like saying thank you. This power of mine won't last forever. My strong body won't always do everything I wish for it to. Some day it will be my turn to shuffle painfully down hallways that seem far too long. Some day I may have to discontinue my beloved habit of reading because my elderly eyes will no longer allow for it. But in the meantime, I'm thankful for a new awareness of the need to say thank you, God.
I looked at her enthralled profile, hardly recognizing her. She was emerging from her chrysalis, right before my fascinated, devastated, admiring eyes. We were at her first rock concert together and I keep telling myself I'm lucky because she's still happy to be in places like this with me. The music is so loud, I can feel it pound through my body almost as much as I can hear it through my old-school - even flourescent orange - ear plugs.
I suspect that this gauntlet is all the more difficult to cross because she's my precious first-born. I feel so conflicted inside, wanting to stifle the all-too-fast beginnings of this burgeoning new person and at the same time admiring and respecting her so much. She is everything I hoped she would be and then more. I didn't know that thirteen-year olds could be so confident and insightful. I didn't know that they could show glimmers of being so much more than their parents. And yet, I feel only a tremendous gratefulness that she is mine, even if only for this very short time.
The music is just what she loves and her appreciation is tangible, though not in quite the same way as the three shrieking, shimmying, terribly off-key adolescent girls directly behind us. There has always been a dignity about my Anabel. She's not flamboyant and she isn't all that drawn to physical touch. Even as a infant, not yet even able to control her own neck muscles, she'd arch her little back away from our snuggles, trying to procure for herself some much valued personal space. I'm reminded of that little newborn tonight as I watch her. Her eyes are bright and if you look closely, you can see the joy lining her face, but she's still and quiet. Though I don't much like the music (I've become that old woman, much to my secret mirth!), my own feet are proving to be far more active than my girls'. She is careful to avoid touching the person next to her, for that would equal social unpleasantness to her. I know that she'd undoubtedly be a great deal noisier and overtly 'teenager-ish' if she were here with a pack of girlfriends, but in the meantime, I just try to record all the little observations I make tonight so that I can remember her, here, right now, forever. She represents eternity in no small way and I'm so happy to be along for the ride.
I was the blessed recipient of a gentle rebuke last night. Jude - our family's representative people person - tactfully began the conversation with something along the lines of, "Mom, are you OK? Do you feel like you're going through anything these days?"
It's so odd to rear up these children who then begin to surpass you as they go along. I'm finding now with both Anabel and Jude, that our relationships are morphing into something brand new and unexpected. They are my children still, needing the guidance and unconditional love that one would expect, but they're also becoming these new creations who are in a strange sort of way, my friends now, too. I always knew that they'd both push way past me in a physical height sense (their birth weights were 10-7 and 9-0 respectively), but I failed to foresee this element of their development. They have real insight to offer me, as I journey my way through life.
Jude's diplomatic opening led the way for me to be able to accept what he had to say to me, which was - I'm afraid to confess - that I've been distracted and irritable with him of late. He's probably right, too. Now that the kids are back in school after the Christmas holidays, I've locked into drill sergeant task mode as I try to dissemble some of the aftermath resulting from six people spending two weeks together, mostly indoors. To my extreme discredit, I get this way when I'm focused on a task that feels daunting. I lose sight of relationship and I begin, disconcertingly for everyone involved, to closely resemble Genghis Khan during one of his military campaigns. My son's gentle rebuke was just what I needed to hear. Out of the mouths of babes.
I have this shortcoming that kind of distresses me because it's end results are rather consequential: I am loathe to verbally express my personal goals to others. Because of this other shortcoming of mine (that's a more palatable way of saying sin; let's call a spade a spade, shall we?) - a gigantic, knobbly pride - I dislike (very much) the putting-it-out-there-ness of telling others where I'd like to see myself grow in the next little while because I'm mortally afraid of having an audience should I fail.
Over the past six months or so, I've concertedly begun to try to be better in this. I've decided to try to trust in my loved ones and their propensity to kind gentleness as they witness my lapses and it occurs to me that in being honest with them and with myself, I'm not shattering their dreams of a flawless JoyGirl. Those who know me, know full well that I'm far from perfect. They know that I'm prone to bossiness. They know I secretly harbor the hope of controlling the universe and that I think I'd be great at it. They know I love to exaggerate to the extreme disservice to an accurately-told yarn. They know I judge others in my heart. They know I lapse all too often into gluttony with my lovely food. They know these and countless other icky things about me and me publicly acknowledging some of the ick isn't the first time they've been introduced to this information. The living out of my life is, sadly, ample evidence for them to feast their eyes upon.
All of that said, my resolutions for this year are:
1) Read my Bible regularly (as in, more than while sitting in church and occasionally at home)
2) Work on my book regularly (as in, most weekdays)
3) Volunteer in a senior's home
4) Eat healthfully
5) Cross train (as in, run at least three times per week plus exercise classes and/or strength training)
What are yours? Last year I made one of my all-time most satisfying ones you may want to note. I resolved to smile at strangers as much as possible (not counting men inclined to misunderstand my motives!). This new habit has brought me so much joy and I intend to do it for all the rest of my life, even if only for selfish purposes! Delurk, please, and let me know the ways you intend to grow this year. I'd love to know!
I have several girlfriends now who have gone in for plastic surgery of some sort. All of them looked conspicuously better than I do now when they went in to have the ostensible damage rectified. I’ve tossed the idea of following their lead around in my head ever since I had Anabel and saw what the housing of her inside my belly did to the skin enveloping the outside of it. You’d have to look long and hard to find someone with stretch marks to compare to mine. And it’s not just stretch marks, either. It’s also the fact that the surface area of my skin is now significantly increased. When I bend over, I am an accordion. Nothing is tight about my midriff anymore. When I run, I have to have good sturdy running pants or shorts to keep me all tucked in and secure or I can actually hurt myself with all the waggling and jaggling. When I dress in the mornings, I have to carefully steer clear of jeans that have a low-rise, for fear of the infamous muffin top that seems to have multiplied exponentially in this mommy-generation (is it because we’re fatter now than ever before or is it because we’re all desperately trying to squeeze ourselves into our daughter’s jeans?). I have to shop in obscure stores to find underwear that are neither a skimpy thong of no use to me at all nor the stereotypical grandma underwear that my own mother wears. I spend exorbitant amounts of money on these hard-to-find body shapers. I am that strange woman you sometimes catch a glimpse of in the public swimming pool, the one that strikes fear into the hearts of all the adolescent girls who’ve caught sight of her that day in her bathing suit. I’m not overweight (or not very much, anyway) and yet my pale skin, for lack of any real elasticity, doesn’t fit my body anymore. My pregnancies have stretched it beyond what any poor skin should be expected to bear. I try to be discreet while exposing my nearly naked self in places like public swimming pools and yet I can see the quavering fear in the eyes of all the 15-year-old girls, wondering if someday this will be their tummy, too. I want to reach out to them, comforting them and assuring them otherwise and I would too, if only I weren’t sure it would alarm them further. I remember when I was their age and I was terrified to think that my own positively hideous body might possibly become more so one day. I want to tell them not to worry and to be kinder to themselves. I want to tell them that they’re perfect and strong. But of course I don’t. And in the meantime, I make sure I always use the private change rooms, so as not to further panic them, poor, dear, cruel things.
And so I contemplate plastic surgery. I don’t judge women who’ve resorted to it. They want to feel their best and they believe that looking their best is a tangible step toward procuring this evasive, idyllic state. There are some plaguing questions that bother me though. I see my two little daughters watching me. Unlike with the girls in the pool, I can reassure Anabel and Lola that it’s very unlikely that their tummies will ever look like mine. I elaborate at some length about the perfect skins of their grandmothers and of their aunties and assure them confidently that undoubtedly their genes, too, will be so inclined. They ask me all about mine. They love the butterfly-wing softness of my belly and love to touch it. When they were little, they would press their tiny faces into it, rubbing their cheeks back and forth on its velvety surface. The excess skin untouched by sun made for the very most satisfying zerberts. I think I’d be more inclined toward the nip and tuck were it not for the fact that I have my daughters. They don’t miss a thing and I don’t know what I’d tell them, in explanation. The message they would hear would be a fight upstream from what I’ve always told them about loving themselves, cherishing themselves, accepting themselves and being kind and gracious to themselves. I think - for the time being at least - of my battle-scarred stomach as a testimony of the rigors of a life well lived. It’s imperfections remind me of the poignant sadness of losing two unborn children before I had the chance to hold them in my arms, before imprinting the sweet-smellingness of their newborn necks on to my brain. My sagging stomach and the stretch marks meandering their way across it like dewy spider webs in the early morning trace the intimate history of the four perfect, healthy children that I helped usher into the world, of the attendant joys of raising them into beautiful people. It reminds me that I’ll always be imperfect and that for now, I’d rather work on perfecting my insides a little more. I’m inclined, just now, to be kind to me and to be gentle. I always find that there are harsh critics with exacting standards in abundance out there in the world and so right now, for the time being at least, I’m going to choose to just touch that sagging old stomach and appreciate all it has done for me and for mine and leave it alone in peace.
Oliver's worldview shows us that sometimes one needs to.
I used to think parenting was easy. I used to think I'd have five or maybe even six kids. I used to think I rocked at this whole parenting thing - that it was satisfyingly easy, even. And then God sent me Oliver. It's not that I don't love him as much as I love the others, or even that I like him less. It's not that at all. It's that with him, I'm forever finding myself having to teach things I never imagined I'd have to teach a child.
Like, for example, it's not OK to belly-buck your friend on the school field. Sometimes - I'm beginning to find - belly-bucking, because it hurts more than one might expect, can escalate to a full on wrestle match on the ground with your friend during recess. You may have intended to begin and end with happy, laughing belly-bucking, only to find yourself sweaty and dirty and being pulled along to visit the principal by a concerned teachers' assistant. Theoretically speaking, of course. If you are one of the lucky ones and you have a principal who understands your heart and the fact that you are a physical little boy who needs a physical outlet and who believes in you, you may well be OK. But not all principals have the requisite time or energy to get to know your beautiful heart and so, one might think, you'd be wise to learn early on to be less physical in your play. Are you reading between the cryptic lines yet?
With Oliver, we have to explain why it's important to be mannerly and patient. The other joykids understood these things instinctively when they were his age. Their own internal policeman informed them all on his own. With Oliver, we have to painstakingly walk him through why you shouldn't impatiently tell your friends off when you feel the first stab of irritation with them. He doesn't suffer fools gladly. Where Oliver is concerned, I don't wonder at his long-term success in life. I know he'll be a world-changer. I admire him and his indomitable spirit. He loves God and his family with a cement-like fortitude. No one can push him around on the inside. Oliver is an incredible person who insists upon doing things well or not at all. He's diligent, careful and he prides himself on his competence. He's smart in a way that has you always writing emails about his aforementioned intelligence to your mother, because you can't believe it sometimes and everyone needs a grandma to brag to with impunity.
But the journey between Oliver's adult self and the little six-year-old we see before us today is fraught with hills to be climbed and valleys to be carefully descended. But I have noticed that when you get to the top of one of the more daunting hills - one of the ones you where you wondered if you'd ever reach the summit - you notice that the air is clear and bracingly beautiful. You wonder if maybe you can't see to the ends of the Earth. There is real clarity there and because it's been hard-earned, it fills the lungs.
I adore my Oliver and I respect him so much. I've never liked anyone more. Shepherding his young heart isn't easy. But maybe the things in life really worth having are the things that require that you invest all of yourself. Who needs five kids, anyway?
I live in a warm part of this country, and so these men and women flock to our fair city, dirty coats flapping out behind them as they aimlessly meander down the streets rendered unsafe by their arrival. They can sleep outside all night here, without shelter, and assuredly not freeze to death somewhere in the process. They bring along with them so many social complications. They force us to ask hard questions of ourselves. What do we owe these people?
I feel convinced that it is not judgment they need. I feel convinced that it is not money tossed guiltily their way that they need. Illustrating this, I once encountered a dirty, helpless, wheelchair bound woman who seemed, too, to have special needs. I was putting my groceries into my car when she approached me, asking for money so that she could get a special wheelchair equipped ride home. I felt more than a simple stab of pity as I dug through my purse to give her what she needed. My pity quickly grew to be much more complicated as I then watched her wheel away to a perfectly clean, able-bodied young man in a flashy sports car, to whom she very servilely passed over the money I'd just given her, in exchange for what I can only assume were drugs. The answer, if there truly is one for us while we still dwell on this earth, is no simple one.
Our city has recently had to dissemble a 'city' of sorts comprised of homeless people and their accompanying 'homes.' I felt so sad to hear that it had to be done and yet I agreed that it needed to be. The social aftermath for neighboring home owners just became too much for them to deal with. The rampant theft, the used drug paraphernalia littering their lawns, the fear in their hearts for the safety of their sleeping children - all of these I have personally experienced. We were once the chagrined owners of an SUV boldly emblazoned with a giant silver penis spray painted on with drug-induced abandon. My station wagon was once stolen right from my own driveway as I readied the kids for school. I came home late one night from a girls-night-out to see a disheveled man hunched over on his expensive bike at the end of my driveway, doing goodness-knows-what to his arm. All the while my children slept just meters away. I had to call my husband with my cell phone to assure me safe passage to my own front door. I have lost count of how many bicycles we've had stolen from our back yard. I'm no armchair critic. I've lived a life that very frequently brushes up against the social problems attendant to the plight of our homeless. And plight it most certainly is.
I berate myself when I - in sunshiney ignorance - take on a topic like this. I don't feel up to the task of doing it justice and yet this draft has been sitting incomplete in my drafts folder for months now. It's either finish it up, or throw it out at this juncture. My perfectionism isn't always very conducive to writing a blog. I want to do things well and little recipes or quick blips about something cute one of the kids said or did make for better fodder for me while using this medium. Not so helpful when I want to pontificate about the spiritual obligation we (Christians and perhaps non-Christians alike) have to these homeless.
As a follower of Christ, I know that an important first step is the meeting of the physical needs I see before me. However, I also know that that's by no means the end of what I owe the homeless. But I know too, that the second doesn't effectively take place without the first. Some cutting-edge young thinkers at our church recently made a documentary about our city's homeless and they talked at some length about how crucial it is that we go past the step of giving money and follow that up with ministering - hands on - to these people's physical needs. Evidently, our city leads charitable giving in this country with each member giving something like $620 per year. The distant second contender (Kelowna, I believe) gives something like $350. Ironically, though, we fall dramatically short with our volunteerism. I guess many of us are thinking that if we throw money at the problem, that's the end of our obligation. I find myself harbouring this attitude. And so I feel some plaguing conviction. I want to contribute and yet at this life stage, I'm not sure how. I'm wary (to say the least) about bringing my children with me to an inner city church where we can tangibly help. Unfortunately, homelessness doesn't end with mere homelessness. Along with it come things like drug addiction, mental illness, theft, all things that make my maternal danger-0-meter clang into high gear when I ponder how my family can help. Have any of you come up with an answer? I think that if JoyBoy and I were empty nesters, this question would be a lot simpler. In the meantime, I just give the cash and hope for the best. That and I pray.
I think often (obsessively might more accurately describe the true state of things) of what my life will look like next year. The last of my children will enter those anything-but-hallowed halls of full time school and my heart feels like it may break. Just to enter into the melodrama a little more fully for a moment, I feel like my whole raison d'etre for the past thirteen years is coming to a close. A close that, from this vantage point, appears to be awfully abrupt and final. I know. I know. My school-aged kids still need a loving and involved mother, but the reality is that I'll have six full hours a day to fill with activities other than those that have engaged me so happily for the past thirteen years.
I have, to my initial surprise, loved being a stay-at-home mother. Though I expected to continue working outside the home during these pre-school years of parenthood, a couple of unexpected and upsetting daycare situations ended that pipe dream. Lucky for me. I've discovered that I love trimming little child-sized fingernails. Scrubbing their soapy, shampoo-y heads while they languish in the bath with their GI Joes and their ponies feels like therapy. I've found that making healthy, home-made baby food really does it for me. I've realized that taking kids for walks to the park equals fun. I love chatting with tiny people, meandering our way through conversation, peppered with the cutest mispronunciations I've ever heard. I love reading to these perfectly round and warm small Ones, as we snuggle up in bed together, their hot, perfect breath warming my very insides. I've felt very happy, very fulfilled over the course of these last thirteen years. My work has felt very meaningful.
As I imagine the upcoming year, and the countless others stretching out surreally beyond it, it scares me to think that it may be full of things like a perfectly clean home with empty rooms overtaking everything for much of the time. No one will pee the bed any longer, needing me to swoop in to the rescue, comforting and cleaning as I go. Who will leave chaotic, comforting paths of K'Nex and Lego as they go along their merry way? I foresee the beginning of the end of the thousands of pieces of child art that have decorated my life for so long. Who will I teach to read? Who will forget to flush the toilet? Or leave a hundred toothpaste-spattered sinks in their wake? It will be so clean in here that the sheer emptiness of it will underline my sucky-baby grief. For to acknowledge that I am indeed a Suck is probably only fair. And yet, when you're a Suck, caught inside the skin of a Suck, what does one do?
I know I'll get over it in time. I have dear women in my life who have walked this path and lived to tell about it. They say the hurting dulls after a while, that you stop wondering all the day long what your Littles are doing at that very second. Whether or not someone is treating them unkindly just then. Whether or not they're trading the apples and nectarines in their lunches for a junky Dunkaroo or a Pop Tart. Whether or not they're using their classtime well. Or if they're talking the whole way through the way that both their Mother and their Father did. These are the questions that I suspect will haunt me.