What Kind of Mother is She?

taken at the dane county fair

It occurs to me that I don’t write much about being a mother.  The reasons are simple.  I have no idea what I’m doing.  I use my instincts.  But I have no exact answers.  It took me years to accept that my mom and dad “did their best.”  They didn’t purposefully f*ck with me.  And now, I take all that and do the same. I do my best.  And I think that has to be enough. I will look back, when my children are gone, and know that I did my best with what I had.  No matter the outcome.

interruptions & change

My daughter just woke up, her face is red and puffy from sleep.  She’s regaling me with a play-by-play of a book she finished late last night.  She is going on, and on, and on! Step-by-integral-step of the harrowing story of a boy who escapes an earthquake.  I don’t care, but — it’ is important that I listen.  All I want to do in this moment is sip my first cup of coffee of the day and write.  But I listen.  Nodding and “Um humming” at what I hope are the right moments.  I am listening.  Sort of.  I am also distracted and hoping she doesn’t notice.  Ironically, in this moment being her mom means listening to her.

That pull of my desires against the desires of my children is one of the most complicated things about being a mother.  The choices we make, day by day, hour by hour.  We’ve all felt that tension.

Children are always “interrupting” all the other things I’m doing.  But when one comes running up the stairs in tears because they got walloped in the eye playing Wii they still run for the comforting kiss right on the spot, my ‘magic’ kiss still has power to heal.   (Mothers have magic kisses if you didn’t know.)   The day they stop wanting those kisses will mean they have moved on to the next stage of their development.  I have four very different kids so that day will be different for each of them.  I cannot prescribe it.  But I won’t stop until they push me away.

They grow.  I grow.  We keep adapting, all of us.  The whole family continues to change.

Tom declared on Wednesday that he thinks the kids are too old to sleep in our bed.  This has been a  long time in coming.  It’s really the nine-year old that likes to go to sleep in my bed.  Being a musician Tom is often up late in his studio, perhaps five nights a week.  I get up at 5 am so I go to bed when the kids do.  I savor those few minutes of reading myself to sleep.  J just likes to be with me and so we’ve developed a habit (some might say an unhealthy one, to which I say rubbish!)  of letting him “warm up” Tom’s spot by falling asleep there.  I like the companionship.

Is this a bad habit?  I don’t know whether I’ve let it go on for so long for myself or for J.  Is he too old?  Parenting is full of lots of conflicting ideas.  And when Tom says J is too old to do it anymore, I really think Tom feels too old to do the required transporting back to the boy’s room, up the ladder and back into his own bed.  And then we also have to deal with the other two who are jealous of this time.  It then becomes something “special” for which they are compelled to compete for Mom.  I’m sure plenty of expert mothers would want to tell me all the ways this is harmful.  I don’t know. Mostly, I don’t care.  But I respect Tom’s wish to fall into bed at one in the morning and not have to move a near comatose child.  So we changed.  And I must learn to go to bed alone.  And so does J.  It’s hard to grow up no matter your age.

unconditional love

I have had moments over the last seventeen years of asking myself what were you thinking becoming a parent?  I write about how I was raised and what that did to me knowing that based on what I experienced I am not qualified. I realized the other day that I don’t know what it feels like to believe you are loved unconditionally by your parents.  If that’s true, and it is, then how do I possibly convey unconditional love to my kids?  Can I?  I believe in it intellectually and even on a spiritual level.  But I don’t get it.  Tom shows it to me – for sure.  So I wrestle with what he does that helps me believe him?  And to this day, my internal voice is pure disbelief.  You surely cannot love without conditions, without criticism, without expectation, without a grumpy disapproval, without your own insecurity pushing you to love  … If you haven’t experienced it.  Then how do I know my kids are feeling it from me?

I think unconditional love is the most important quality a parent should have.  Then you can push, and you can encourage, and even disapprove.  They will know they are okay. Somehow Tom’s parents managed to show him that kind of love.  These are the things that I think make me unqualified to be a parent.

learn from others & trust your gut

Some days I think I’m just a reactionary.  I react to how I was parented.  I react to things my kids are doing.  I react to books.  I react to teachers.  I react to the culture.  I am not very good at deciding a good way of doing something and sticking with it — mostly because I don’t think there is a right way.  I really needed about five years of study on parenting before I even got started.  And that’s an absurd impossibility.  Who has the time?   So we learn as we go.

I became a mother the day we married in 1993, a year before I was a footloose single woman planning on heading to the mission field.  I didn’t think about kids.  They simply weren’t.  They didn’t exist in my worldview.   Falling in love with Tom, hard and fast meant learning to love his four and a half year old daughter.  And when we married I became an instant mother – the “extra” mom to a five-year old daughter.  Extra or Other — whatever you get called, being a step-mom was a crash course in parenting.  And like nothing I had experienced before in my life, it brought out my insecurities and need for control!  Wow!   Perhaps some day, perhaps, I will write about the years that I worked in full-time ministry while parenting a step child and having three biological kids.  I’ll call it “How I was an Ugly, Paranoid, Controlling Step-Monster.” My daughter M graciously loves me still and has forgiven me for those years.  When she moved back in recently, at 22, I realized God is gracious and gave  me a do-over.

Here’s the thing.  I believe kids just want to be loved and kids are the most forgiving of all people.  All they know is you. You are their parent.  Okay, later they will figure some things out.  Like perhaps you didn’t know anything.  That’s the risk.  That’s the fun!  And then when they become a parent, well, perhaps you won’t look quite so crazy.

Luckily we have twenty years with our kids and have time to make adjustments.

I have learned is that there are no rules.  Rules in parenting is crap. The best guide for me has been my gut.  My gut has never failed me.  My gut disagrees or sometimes agrees with parenting books.  My gut disagrees or sometimes agrees with other parents giving advice.  My gut disagrees or agrees with pediatricians, teachers, supposed experts.  If you follow your gut, your intuition, I believe you’ll be okay, eventually.

For many years I doubted my gut and my voice because I doubted myself.  My own insecurities played into who I listened to and what I believed.  I’d boomerang from one theory to another intellectually.  But in practice usually my inner voice said do this or don’t do that.  We make mistakes.  We are unusually lax in response to having strict parents or vice versa.

asian vs. any other parenting

I have not read Amy Chua’s book, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother mostly because there’s a lot about the stereotypical Asian parenting style that I respect, but I know I don’t have the will power to follow through on.  So it would just make me feel bad and I am really not in to feeling bad about myself right now.  So I’ve ignored the articles, reactions and furor.

Frankly many modern parents are far too lax with their children, but I have seen this with every kind of parent  from many different cultures. I know that I could and perhaps should push my children harder.  I mean, now I wish I had been pushed academically.  In hind sight, I was a slacker, intelligent but insecure and I would have benefited from my parents lovingly pushing me just a bit more (or a lot more!)  On the other hand, I felt I never measured up to what my dad expected of me.  I lived in that limbo of that craziness.   His insecurities drove him and we were a reflection of him.  We were a mirror of his success or not.  This is a very Asian characteristic I have been told by one of my friends who is also Asian.

And so I push my intelligent but lazy daughter, but not too much I hope.  I consistently fight the internal shame that says I don’t expect enough of her and I am the thing standing between her and Harvard or Yale Law school.  Me.  And then the countering voice reminds me what I really believe.  That she needs to find the balance herself.  Know that she’s loved no matter what she chooses but also know that more opportunities will be open to her if she applies herself academically and learns to work hard.   I want each of my children to be able to ask the question what they want?  Then help them to see what they have to be willing to do, in order to get it.  By empowering my daughters especially in those moments they learn their own power.  It is a choice.  I hope I am right.  My gut tells me I am.  In the end that’s all I have.  My boys are different, completely and my approach is also different but instilling in them a sense that they control their future is important.

I have a Japanese friend and I love how she parents.  She is an incredible mother and I learn from her every time we get together.  “When I am cleaning my children are cleaning“, she tells me.  Wha?  I am so not there! To be honest my kids emulate Tom and I who hate to clean. Do I want to be more like my friend?  Hell yes!  I guess what I am saying is that there is something to be learned from a culture that promotes hard work, excellence, pride and discipline. I admire it.  I want those to be things my children learn from me.  But no, my ten year old does not know how to clean the toilet.   I find that reflexively parent like I was parented — growing up cleaning is a pain!  To be avoided or to be endured, …  If I want to change this little legacy in my family it will take effort and discipline. I don’t know if I want to make the effort.  I don’t know if I have the discipline.  Which is where I started above.  I find a lot of things are great ideas but practically speaking I am unable to maintain them.  We all have to know ourselves.

what’s your highest calling?

This morning I read something that startled me but I agree with it:

“… parenting is not our highest calling! Faithfully serving & following after Christ is our highest calling!  —  SortaCrunchy

We are going to make mistakes, perhaps even a lot of them.  You’ll compare yourself to others and wonder if perhaps their way is better.  But in the end you have to look at your kids, unique individuals that they are as well as look at yourself and your partner/spouse who are also unique people, and do your best.

Parenting is its own religion, and engenders its own faith. Debating it serves no purpose other than inciting holy war.  –@kmaezenmiller

Our calling is to follow Christ.  Behave as he did.  Emulate him.  Do our best.  And if I can let go of all of the above and relax, well then there’s hope for us all.  It’s not simple nor would I ever want to imply that.  But there is a level of trust you must have in yourself, in the person you partner with to parent and in God.



This is what got me thinking this morning.  http://rachelheldevans.com/moms-scare-me

I once was a control freak

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Image by M e l o d y via Flickr

I found myself yesterday recalling more difficult days.  A time when I was regularly caught up in bitterness and anger.  For nearly ten years that was a theme of my home life.

I resented my husband’s ex-wife.  I resented that he even had one. I resented her very existence.  And even more strongly, I felt total and abject misery about it.  My perspective on being a step-mother was that I was utterly helpless in my situation and terrible at it.

Once, only days after we returned from our honeymoon in northern california,

I woke up at some ungodly hour to screaming from the other room.  Molly had a bloody nose!  And apparently not her first, as Tom yelled back instructions for what to do.  Actually it may have been Tom’s bellowing that woke me and I – was – pissed.  I’m not sure I even gave him time to resolve the bloody nose before I tore into him that he should never wake me up screaming on the top of his lungs again! I’ll never forget that incident because that was the day that it hit me, I was a step-mom.

Yeah, seems like I should have dealt with that fact earlier, but I was in love and could not be bothered at the time with the details of a child.  How bad could it be?  And she wasn’t even with us all the time. It brought new meaning to the phrase ignorance is bliss!

When we married in June of 1993 Molly had just turned five.  If I recall correctly the custody arrangement at that time was week on week off.  And so for those early years of our marriage, we were honeymooners for a week and then became a little family for a week.  It was strange.  It was a bit like playing house for me.  I have very few memories of those early years, except I had no idea what I was doing.

I do remember being in the grocery store and I had told Molly something she needed to remember.  I was angry because she didn’t.  And as if it was yesterday, I recall Tom telling me “With children, you have to tell them about 100 times and even then they may not remember.  They are not robots.” 

“Things would work a lot better if they were robots! “I thought to myself as I stalked off to the dairy department for yogurt!

I felt step-parenting was constantly humiliating and I was consumed with the fact that I had no power –no real authority.  And yet, I was expected to help raise this little girl.

Those were difficult years.  I would go to work and forget for a while and become consumed in my work.  Going home was frustrating, and time-consuming and made me feel incompetent. I behaved shamelessly — doing things I would never allow myself to do now.  A step-parent, no matter how frustrated should never speak poorly about the other parent.  Ever.  It’s petty and shallow and makes it unsafe for the child to talk to you.

Over the years, Tom was a perfect example of self-control.

He was strong and saint-like as he dealt with me (a raving lunatic), his ex-wife (no comment) and his daughter.  He was commited to peace.  Even as I goaded him to fight back or stick up for us or express our viewpoint he remained adamant that he would not do anything that allowed her to escalate.   Peace at any price, for Molly.  Early in our marriage I saw this as weak and even cowardly.  Growing up, I saw arguing as normal.  Sticking up for yourself was important because we had very little power and one had to keep it at any cost.  But I learned – ever so slowly – from Tom was that there was power in not jumping into the fracas.

And over the years I did see that our home was a safe place for Molly, because of Tom.  It took me years, really not until 1993 or 94 top be open enough to allow God to work on my heart.  I wanted control and was no good at letting go of it.  I wanted a clear role and as a step-mother that was a constantly shifting one, as “real” mom changed who she was and what role she wanted in her own daughter’s life.  I wanted authority and as step-mom felt like I never had it, ultimately.  I wanted the injustice and mess of Tom’s divorce  not spill over into my newly married life.  But it boiled over, regularly.  I wanted to help this little girl and in the end miraculously good came of it, but it was very ambiguous and it was not until she was an adult herself that I could really see that I had played any positive role in her life.  I thank God for his kindness, as I had a lot to learn and this little girl was an innocent bystander to those hard lessons.  Fortunately children are resilient and God is tender and merciful.

At some point in the winter of 1994 I took a long walk, pouring out my heart to God.  I expressed my disappointment and anger at this aspect of my life and I needed him to heal me.  I cried out, in my sense of inadequacy and fear.  I was so resentful that this woman existed as if I could wish her away.  Ultimately it came down to something Tom had said to me from the beginning of our marriage.

“You give her all the power by resenting her so much.”

In our pre-marriage counseling, our pastor Craig Barnes, said “She (ex-wife) will be the most important other person in your marriage.  Supporting her role in Molly’s life would become my most difficult task.” [Those were not his exact words.]  If only I had listened.  If only I had believed him.  But I had to sort it out in my way in my time, I suppose.  Ten years of tears, and grief.  But there was a bigger lesson I was learning about power and control and that day, ten years later, I gave up any inclination of my power.  And in a mystical and almost instantaneous moment I was healed.

Over the years we still had our struggles, but Tom and I became a team at that point.  I began to see that in his peacemaking he was strong and had power.  He always chose what was best for Molly and I came to support that and learned to bite my tongue when I wanted to lash out (literally drawing blood at first).  I learned to listen and eventually I let go of my perceived power.  Because that is all it is when you are a parent – the perception that what you are doing will change these little people into what you want.

Who knew that our children learn from our choices to not say or not do something, as much as from what we do and say to them.   No matter whether we are a step – or a “real” parent, we have to let go!

Step-parenting is hard.  Anyone who doesn’t know that is ignorant and naïve.  But it is character building.

If you are given a close relationship with the child you receive into your life, as I have been, well, that’s something to celebrate!

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]We are blessed with a wonderful relationship with Molly today.  She’s an amazing young woman.  And I can also say that my relationship with/toward her Mom is positive and though our contact is limited now that Molly is an adult our interactions today are healthy and supportive of each other.  God is good.

Femmes arabes sur baudets.

The New York Public Library has shared old photographs to the public commons of flickr. I was intrigued by these really old images from Syria and Egypt and this one in particular. It made me think of Mary, Jesus’ mother, possibly riding in to Nazareth, exceedingly pregnant. She would not have been veiled, but in every other way this image takes me there.

I just love old images and thoroughly enjoy scrolling through them.

On a slightly different note, has a kid ever asked you things like “Why is Santa called Santa?” Or, I’m trying to remember some of the stranger questions I’ve gotten over the years…. about various Christmas customs?  Have you ever wondered why a tree is used to celebrate Christmas?  I have.  I found an interesting website explaining why we have certain Christmas traditions and fascinating to me, how Christmas is celebrated  in various cultures.  Christ followers celebrate the birth of Jesus and if you’re curious, read the full Christmas story here.

And, being a step-parent, I found this rendition of the story of Joseph to be interesting.  It’s found on an Anglican Church website.  Being a step-mom was one of the most difficult roles I’ve ever found myself playing and it isn’t a game.  Every day, with an instant five year old child was personally challenging and tested my character and strength.  I’m afraid I many times came up short.  But I never considered the fact that Joseph was raising a child that wasn’t his own blood.

I hope you will enjoy the 19th century images.  And perhaps learn something you didn’t previously know about the customs of Christmas.