Friday, April 25, 2014

The Value of Ten Minutes
"Mommy, can you snuggle with me?" my oldest son asks. 

I instinctively glance towards the clock, its rigid hands like angry eyebrows ever chastising me for my tardiness.  No matter how diligently I try, most nights find us finishing bedtime routine a few minutes behind schedule.  This night is much the same, the great marker of time reminding me I'm already four minutes late in getting everyone in bed because prayer time and thankful journals ran long .

Time, though, is meaningless to the young.  Wyatt hops from one bare foot to the other, his expectant eyes searching my face as he waits impatiently for an answer.

I know those sparkling eyes, that smile I can chase away with a solitary cross word.

"Wyatt......." I begin.

What he doesn't realize is that while my body may still be sitting in repose on the sofa, my mind has already somersaulted far ahead to evening chores--to the day's dishes stacked and waiting to be put away in the kitchen; to the great scattering of books needing to be cleared from the living room floor; to the three classes of papers waiting to be downloaded and graded; to the private time with husband after listening ears are deafened by sleep's call; to the warm, uninterrupted soak to draw out the day's tensions...

So much going and doing almost swallows up this opportunity.  But then I glimpse those legs stretching tall and remember.  He's seven and a half.  There will be a day soon when he will no longer ask me this question.    There will all too soon come a time when I won't have a chance to say no or yes.

And so, I bite back the words already on my tongue and simply nod, agree to a few minutes.  I slowly pull myself to my feet, stretching spring's labor-stiffened muscles after him.  Wyatt skips ahead, light on joyful feet that eagerly join with mine beneath a blanket of brightly colored planets and a zillion points of light.

There with swirling galaxies drawn up to our chests, we curl together.  He talks.  I listen, only commenting every now and then or making small sounds to show I'm still listening even if my eyes are closed.  Mostly, though, I just listen.  Ten minutes go by, then fifteen as he leapfrogs from one subject to the next.

I stroke his forehead, run my hand through his hair, memorize the silhouette of his small nose and chin.  The whites of his eyes glow in the blue aura cast by the nightlight as he tells me imaginary stories or real events from his other life at school.  He asks questions about God, about people, about his future.  All the while, I drink in the smoothness of his still-little-boy skin, the sweet smell of freshly washed hair.

When the pauses between topics begin to grow, I kiss his forehead, whisper my love, and bid him sweet dreams.  Even in the darkness,  I can see his lips curve into a pleased smile as he whispers the same to me, tugs the universe up to his chin, and burrows down deeper into the heaviness of sleep.

The next night and the next night are much the same.  By night three of Wyatt's asking, the twins begin parroting his request for the same affection.

Snuggling with my youngest son is like trying to hug a small kitten, both of them too full of life to be still for long.  Emerson chatters just like Wyatt, only with more urgency, an endless stream of words needing to be heard.  They pour out in a lazy stream of consciousness style but with the force of an active five year old who lacks volume control.  His only pauses come when I brush his cheek, a genuine smile short-circuiting his thought processes, impeding his ability to speak for a few seconds.

My daughter, though, is silent.  When I leave behind the dark blue galaxies to wrap myself all in pink butterflies...when I bend my head to smell her hair, she draws closer than the boys, buries her head into my neck and sighs soft, simply needing a mother's close touch and not a mother's listening ear.  The only time she speaks is when the cat sneaks in the cracked door and meows to question why I'm here instead of downstairs.  Amelia giggles and runs her fingers through the short, gray fur walking across her tummy.

I kiss her sweaty forehead and slip away from the sparkles and pastels.  "Good night, mommy," she says, smiling that same contented smile that was on the boys' faces minutes before.

This night, the visits are shorter, but their length doesn't seem to matter.  It's just my presence that is needed, a few minutes of individual attention when I'm all theirs--for listening, for answering, for just a small bit of affection.

I don't know how long this phase will last when they ask for a few minutes extra with their mother at the end of the day.  What I do know is what my response will be.

"Yes.  I have a few minutes for you."

Thursday, April 17, 2014

When Children are Reluctant to Grow Up

There's a pile of training wheels on my carport--six now useless plastic wheels cast off like prison chains, evidence that three bikes have been freed from their shackles and received their walking papers to fly.

To anyone else, the tangle of worn-down plastic and steel may look like worthless scrap metal destined for the garbage heap or the dark recesses of some shed where rust corrupts the unused parts of our lives.  But to a mother, it serves as another sweet memento of childhood's passing.

Last Thursday, this mother brought out her toolbox and forcefully removed these safety measures from the twins' bikes.   One wheel was quite determined to fight against its freedom, requiring a few kicks to the wrench (something I'm sure their daddy wouldn't do!)

Always riding big brother's coat tails, Emerson was ready.  Less than half a dozen motherly pushes, and he was down the quarter-mile drive to Opa's house with the smell of Oma's after-school brownies pushing him onward.

Amelia, though, wasn't so confident.  She is my seemingly fearless princess trying to keep up with the boys playing in the mud.  But, like her mother, she is my uncertain child who never quite trusts herself, who has to be convinced she can do whatever it is, especially if there is a good chance of getting hurt. In other words, she's the one I'm constantly having to shove out of the nest.

Over and over, she sees the possibility of danger out of the corner of her eye and stops peddling, causing crashes that could have easily have been avoided had she simply kept going.

That first night after doing little more than pedaling a few feet and then crashing because of her lack of confidence, she is inconsolable.  Evening prayers are followed by a sobbing little girl blubbering about how she is scared and doesn't want to ride again without her training wheels.

I shrug. Sure.  If she really doesn't want to learn to ride without them, I'll put them back on in the morning...if she's really sure.

The sobs subside a bit.  Apparently, this mama has given in too easily, unexpectedly.

"Are you sure," I ask, forcing her to meet my eyes to show her I'm serious.

Her eyes drop and her voice squeaks.  "Well, maybe....."

A weekend later, my frog princess smooths down her purple top and hitches up the pink butterfly skirt, all the while talking encouragement to herself as she's heard me do so often. Over and over, she yells in triumph as she makes it to the first curve in the drive...and then walks the bike back to me for help in starting again.

Learning to ride your bike is a rite of passage, much like learning to walk and learning to drive a car. 

This rite involves overcoming one's fear of falling, crashing, and just generally getting dinged and dented in the process.  It requires learning to trust the one holding you upright on those inaugural voyages and then learning to trust yourself and continue along the path when you realize that support has unknowingly set you free.
 Sounds a lot like life lessons in general to me.

In the end, my two little children are free.  Unshackled.  Faster than they ever believed possible when still chained down.  And so proud of themselves for succeeding when they weren't sure they could.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The One New Habit You Need in 2014

February 22, 2014.  A little over six weeks ago.  That was the first evening I gathered the entire family together after bath time to begin a new habit I hoped would transform my children (and me in the process).  There in the upstairs foyer, I sat on the sofa atop beige throw pillows while the children sprawled across the floor, composition notebooks opened and freshly sharpened pencils in each small hand. 

Husband had a hard time weaving his way through the lanky legs waving in the air, each child oblivious to how long his (and her) appendages had become.  Still, he managed the obstacle course to squeeze in beside me on the sofa.  I smiled, a bit sheepish, as I handed over his notebook…brown and blue paisley with a blue butterfly, the most manly cover I could find at our local store that seemed to carry only florals and puppies.

Days before, my oldest son had experienced another after-school meltdown of the Chicken Little variety.  “Nobody likes me.  Nothing good ever happens to me.  Why oh why do only bad things always happen to only me?”  Yeah--the kind of meltdown that makes mothers roll their eyes, especially when such drama comes on the tail end of fabulous hours, days, or even entire weeks.

Wyatt has always been a “what if” doomsday kind of child, the type who can let a solitary word or action ruin an entire day, spiral him downward into a funk that only a good night’s rest can break him free from.  This inability to see the forest for the trees—he gets it from me.  Sometimes, I, too, can’t see past the “have not’s” in my life.

And so for months, Wyatt and I had talked about how things really were versus how they felt to him.  Seated together on his bed, we would remember aloud happy memories.  It got to where we were praying every single day about his attitude.  I was diligently striving to teach him how to ask for God’s help in remembering the truth and the good things in life when all he could see was how bad everything “always” was.

One afternoon in a particularly teary encounter caused by someone saying something mean to him on the school bus, he confessed that he had been asking God to help his attitude.  He had prayed.  “I try! I really am!” he explained.  “But what if I just can’t remember?”

And that’s when the “Thankful Journal” was born.  The very next morning, the twins and I made a special trip to the store for no other reason than to pick up five notebooks.  That first night, I explained to Wyatt (and the rest of the family) that this would be a new family habit every night.

If I expected a sudden miracle, I would have been disappointed.  Two days later, Wyatt had another meltdown.  This time, I sent him to get his journal. 

“How is this going to help?” he scoffed, but he sat and read it anyway.  There was no sudden magic that day.  His mood continued, as usual, but it did fade by the time we gathered to write our thanks again. 

Since then, I have noticed a distinctive change in both my oldest son and in me.  No matter how hard a day we have had, forcing ourselves to write down a minimum of four things we are thankful for at the end of each day really does make a difference.

The past six weeks have been filled with one sickness after another—stomach flu, strep throat, pink eye, sinus infection, fever virus.  You name it.  All three children plus husband have had it.  And yet, sometimes it’s on those nights when we are all at our sickest that we are able to come up with the most things to be thankful for…in spite of the illness.

Each evening since February 22, we five move upstairs together, no matter how busy we are or what else is awaiting our attention.  Emails pause mid-creation, phone calls go to voicemail, and even books must wait for the last page.

There between the sofa and “naughty bench,” we think, write, and share.  Then, after everyone has read his or her list, we quiz each other to see if we can name one thing each person is thankful for.  This helps keep the seven and under crowd’s attention in a competitive sort of way, but I’m always astonished at the particular item they each remember, which reveals more about them than they realize.
After just six weeks, I feel closer to my children, knowing what they are thankful for.  In the beginning, they would write only tangible things like “popsicles” or “Hotwheels,” but now they give thanks for things like “hug from mommy when I got off the bus” or even things that made someone else happy like “Emerson learning to ride his bike with no training wheels.”  This branching out of gratitude for something that happened to someone else is what I love the most.

What’s more, I feel closer to my husband.  Unlike me, he’s not one to walk around giving words of affirmation for every little thing.  Now, though, I get to hear him give voice to what he’s thankful for each day, making me feel that he is more connected to our family and how much he does love us all.

The biggest change, though, has been in Wyatt.  In only six weeks, he’s closing in on 500 things he’s thankful for, his siblings not too far behind him.  The Chicken Little moods have stopped, and when he does have a bad day, it is no longer all consuming.

The sad thing is I had read Ann Voskamp’s book One Thousand Gifts four years ago when it first came out.  I had applied to my own life its view of being thankful even in the small things, of looking for God in everything good and everything bad.  It changed me back then.  And yet, I had neither taken the time to actually write down my gratitude nor to include my husband and children in the habit.

The notorious “they” say you know it’s a habit when it feels weird to not do it.  The kids will tell you--we're there.   

This is one habit I hope to keep forever and one I'd love to see you share with your own family.  It has brought us closer as a family and helped us give thanks even when we thought we had none to give on a particular day.

Photos: (1) Our journals. (2) Some of Wyatt's thankful list--sometimes he writes, other times, he dictates.  (3) Emerson, age 5, adding another thing to his list. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Running Away from Home

My bag is packed and waiting by the door.  Handwritten notes sit on the gathering table for every single person in our family (including one final "to do" checklist for myself).   All that remains is to wait the final few hours until I leave all three children at home with their daddy for two days....and then to stop myself from texting him every five minutes to make sure everything is ok during that time.

This is one of those occasions when I must demonstrate confidence and trust in my spouse by not micromanaging or second guessing his every simply letting him be a father to his children (and trusting that my heavenly Father will help this earthly father not let the house burn to the ground).

This "trusting" is hard. It's not that my husband is a bad father; he's actually quite wonderful, and the children are excited at just the thought of this special time with daddy.  

It's just that he's not a mother.

It's taken me years to realize that the skills needed to successfully mother a brood of children are inextricably wound into my female DNA.  What comes naturally to me is so foreign to him, no matter how many times I try to explain it and teach him the tricks of the trade to make parenting easier.

The when's and how's of showing mercy and dropping the axe elude him.  The carefully crafted "rules of the farm" that harmonize together into a beautiful symphony sometimes seem arbitrary to him...until he sees the train wreck resulting from the withdrawal of a single instrument.

He dresses our children every Saturday and yet still has no idea whose clothes are whose and which are for on-the-farm filthiness and which are for "town only."  Unlike a mother, he doesn't naturally think five steps ahead to know that the day after a rainstorm, you should never allow the children to wear light colors because of the mud that will somehow leap off the ground by itself (much like that golden calf that leapt out of the fire) and onto their clothes. 

Worse, husband doesn't have that mom radar to be able to tell when the kids are lying, doesn't know their hiding places when they're supposedly "out of earshot," and doesn't understand that an "I don't know" answer almost always means "I don't want to tell you" nor how to use the "mommy glare" to pull the real story from a five year old's mouth.  
And so, I write notes to my children, giving each of them specific responsibilities to remind daddy of X, Y, and Z over the next two days.  I then check and double check my list to husband in an attempt to write down everything I can possibly think of to ward off every probable disaster.

What to do if someone spikes a fever.  Who gets what medications and when.  When to ask the doctor for a shot and when to ask for horse pill (not the liquid!) antibiotics.  Who gets to stop eye drops for pink eye on Friday and who still has to take them no matter what they say. 

I breathe deep, remembering how I  wasn’t even out of the driveway last Saturday on my way to a luncheon ten minutes away and number one son was already “missing.”

But even though he doesn't know all the house rules by heart, even though my laundry pile will likely be more "interesting" than usual, and even though sugar/McDonald's will definitely be classified as a new food group, I relinquish the mom hat and put husband fully in charge, trusting the man I love to do his very best...and relying on God to take up the slack.