The truth is that you can’t always know where your charity is going, but please keep giving. Because people keep needing.
I’ve seen a few posts going around since Christmas last week – some neighbor or friend has just witnessed a person making a massive amount of returns at Walmart or Target – toys, bikes, games… all Angel Tree gifts. All being exchanged for a store gift card, with nary a child in sight. Outrage ensues, mistrust abounds, and people second-guess their charitable contributions. Despite the fact that it’s pretty hard to tell
from standing near a customer service line if a returned toy was an Angel Tree donation, or even verify if your neighbor’s hair dresser’s cousin’s leggings upline actually saw this going down, people are quick to draw their breath and pocketbooks in.
“I can’t believe this! I feel so taken advantage of!”
“So many of those charities are scams, anyways.”
“That’s why we just give to people we know personally – you never know what’s actually going to a kid otherwise.”
People are already making plans not to donate next year based solely on a 14th-hand account someone may have pieced together off of assumptions and loose observations. But y’all, please keep giving.
Many years ago, when I was a Lisa Frank-era girl living with my single mom, I was an Angel Tree kid. My name, my likes, my sizes, all on display on a giant tree somewhere. I have no idea where the tree was or how many people walked past it. I do know that at some point a family saw my name and chose it. I didn’t ask for a Sega Genesis or one of those awesome clear phones DJ Tanner had, I’m pretty sure I just asked for a typewriter. Or a horse, since I was a young girl during the 80’s and 90’s, but I really probably only asked for a typewriter.
Instead, the family who chose me from the Angel Tree got me a dress. Not just a dress, a handmade dress. It was dark green with white lace at the neck, and pretty long. Maybe this family couldn’t give much financially, but they could give me their talents, give me the gift of knowing I was thought of, give me something to open on Christmas that said, “Hey, Jen, we wanted you to have this.” I hear a lot of people say that they don’t remember what gifts they got at Christmas when they were younger. Maybe I’m materialistic, maybe I’m sentimental, but I clearly remember that Christmas, in our little first-floor apartment with the donated shower curtain and towels, opening that green dress and knowing that a family somewhere knew I existed and wanted to give something to me.
I also remember, more than once, my mom returning something of hers in order to buy us food. A curling iron, a cordless phone… anything she still had the original packaging for she was willing to give up in order to feed us. So while someone might think they see a mom returning toys for gift cards, what they might actually be witnessing is a sacrifice for meals, for medicine, for gas, for diapers, for school clothes. Maybe a favorite aunt bought duplicates. Maybe the parent lost custody. Maybe the family just really needed to eat. And yeah, maybe someone was selfishly taking their child’s toys back without the kid’s knowledge. But whatever is actually happening in the hearts of those at the counter, please keep giving. Because people keep needing.
If you’re still having trouble with trusting a charity, if you still are wary of dropping items off and hoping they reach their intended destination, then please find other ways to keep giving. Volunteer with local organizations, contact churches near you and ask about families who may be in need, call the schools in your neighborhood and see if they have any kind of toy or food drives going on or students with felt needs. Food pantries and churches, in particular, are frequently approached by those in need – see how you can donate or help. Seek out an elderly, isolated, or struggling neighbor. Make regular visits to nursing homes with new socks and a smile. If you can’t give, help. If you can’t help, smile. There is always a way to do something kind for another person.
The truth is that you can’t always know where your charity is going. Is the guy at the gas station really going to use that money to get home to his sick wife? Is that woman on the corner really as destitute as she makes out? Will those toys you donated actually end up in the happy hands of a less fortunate child? Who knows. But if you can give, then do. If you need a guarantee that your gift will be used as you see fit then you’re not giving, you’re congratulating yourself. Giving with conditions isn’t charity, it’s not for the benefit of anyone else. Requiring someone to earn donations based on a set of approved criteria isn’t giving, it’s employment. Do a self-inventory and ask if you’re looking to bless someone or hire someone, to help the less fortunate or to boost your own morale for a while. Stop demanding a follow-up and please, just keep giving. It doesn’t have to be a Nintendo Switch or a salary’s worth of LOL dolls. Sometimes all it takes to make the difference to someone in need is a simple handmade dress.
Have you ever found yourself face to face with someone who was going through a hard time, someone who was struggling, maybe someone who had just poured their heart out to you and was now staring at you with wet, hopeful eyes? Have you ever thought to yourself, “What am I supposed to say here?” You don’t want to say the wrong thing, or maybe you don’t have any experience with what they’re dealing with. You’re out of ideas, out of words, and find yourself grasping for how to respond.
Fear not! The cliché dice are here! Now you can reply cleverly and earnestly to friends and loved ones with tried-and-true clichés, little nuggets of wisdom that will leave your pained pal feeling better, feeling like you really listened. But more importantly, just one nonchalant roll of the dice will leave you feeling like you helped, without all the hard work of actually having to empathize.
Ridiculous, right? I used to think so, too.
Struggle in our lives can bring out the awkward in those around us – heck, it can bring out the ignorance. Miscarriage, job loss, struggling with a child with special needs or even my own health, there is no shortage of dumb stuff and stale, incompatible clichés that people toss my way. I know I’m not alone in this experience. I’m sure you can think back to a time when you were struggling – or maybe you find yourself having a hard time now – and some (probably) well-meaning person said something just so utterly dumb, thinking they were helping.
Recently I had such a moment, crying to a counselor about a very big decision with regards to one of my children. I had just spend the last several minutes pouring my broken heart out, desperation spilling from my eyes, sharing my innermost thoughts and turmoil and insecurities. I needed this woman’s wisdom, needed her guidance, needed someone who could speak some truth to me that would help me, in any way. Instead, she rolled the dice.
“I mean, what have you got to lose?”
This was her response. Seriously.
“MY CHILD.” Was mine.
She tried to backpedal, but the damage was done. She may not have ever been in the situation I was, and genuinely may not have known what to say. That wasn’t the way to fill the silence.
When we experienced our first miscarriage, people were rolling the dice left and right. “Let’s hope that one wasn’t a girl!” “At least you know you can get pregnant!” “You must not have prayed hard enough.” “Eh, something was probably wrong with it.” “At least you have other kids already.” “Lots of people have miscarriages.” “At least you weren’t that far along.” “I wonder if you did/ate/breathed/looked at anything to cause it.” And the worse possible side of the cliché dice, the one you should never roll (but so many people seem to) – “I know exactly how you feel. Let me tell you about my experience instead of listening to you cope with yours.”
Guys, listen. There’s a time and a place for sharing our scars. We can grow together, empathize, relate, become vulnerable and find healing in each other’s pain. But right in the big fat middle of someone else’s suffering is not the time to share yours. It’s literally pouring salt into their wound. No matter how much you may understand from your own personal experience, listen to theirs. Unless you are asked for advice, keep your own experience to yourself. You can weep tears of understanding, cry prayers of compassion, but give the hugs you would have wanted and the listening ears you would have needed. Never, ever, under any circumstances, ever, EVER, roll the dice and say, “I know exactly how you feel.” Because you don’t. At all. You’re different people. You have different thoughts. You have different ways of processing emotions. You may have an idea. You may have experienced the exact same scenario. But your experience is your experience, and their trauma is theirs, and whatever they’re in the middle of is really hard. Don’t minimize their feelings by trying to mix them with your own. Let them have their own upset.
“When God closes a door He opens a window.” “God will never give you more than you can handle.” Nope. These aren’t even Biblical. There are no Bible verses to back these things up, and all they do is dismiss the current pain by telling the sufferer it will get better later. The truth is, you don’t know if it will get better. You don’t know if something else awaits. The truth is that closing a door sucks, and that’s what your friend needs to process right now. The truth is that God will absolutely give us more than we can handle. The truth is that sometimes we willingly risk more than we can handle. The truth is that God is near to the brokenhearted. That’s Biblical. That’s something you can share. You have no idea what God has planned for this person before you, but you do know that God won’t leave them, God loves them, and their tears do not go unnoticed by God. Besides, doors are way easier to get through than windows, so why would the idea of God opening a window make anyone feel better?
I lied. I said the worst response you could get from the cliché dice is “I know exactly how you feel.” That’s inaccurate. It’s still an awful, awful way to respond to someone struggling, but it’s not the most awful way. The worst, most terrible, most horrible, most painful way to respond to someone in the midst of a battle is… ” .” Saying nothing. Rolling the dice and coming up in the blank side. Sure, you’re not expected to have a sermon and a 9-point plan each time someone pours their heart out to you, and there is absolutely a time for quiet, for listening, for hugs and silent sobs. I’m talking about when you walk past the woman who is going through a divorce. When you see the man who just lost his job. When you walk past the parents whose child just received a devastating diagnosis. The person who has buried a loved one, the woman overwhelmed with the sickness her family has been sharing the last few weeks, the guy who you know is battling depression, and yes, the couple who just experienced a miscarriage.
Don’t. Be. Silent.
If all other words and sentiments escape you and you really just don’t know what to do, look them deep in the eyes, open up a text or email, and say, “I’m so sorry.” Really. Do not let them walk past you, do not scroll past their name on social media, do not let them come into your view and your mind without offering your sympathy, without asking them how they are. Ask them how you can help. Ask them what they need. Ask them how they’re feeling. Ask them about what they’re going through. Don’t pretend it isn’t happening. Don’t smile and hope it’s a bright spot in their stormy times. Don’t protect yourself from the discomfort of their pain by pretending it isn’t real. Ask them.
I almost planned out a second, separate post on asking people how they are, and I still may, but this has to go here. Ask people. If you know they’re going through a life change, a struggle, a battle, or just had a bad day, ask them about it. Don’t let them feel isolated. Don’t allow them to fall victim to the lie that they’re all alone. Even if you have no idea what it’s like or if you went through the very same thing last year, ask them. Take time out of your day, make them feel loved, and ask them.
Let’s be honest, a lot of the discomfort we feel that prompts us to roll the cliché dice comes more from us wanting to feel like we accomplished something rather than the pain we’re witnessing. Most people aren’t expecting an expert opinion when they’re sharing their struggles with you. They’re not looking to you for all the answers. They don’t think their success lies in whatever you say next. The pressure is off, y’all, you don’t have to have any solutions. You just have to make them feel heard, loved, and important. You don’t have to feel comfortable or accomplished when discussing someone’s battles. You will feel awkward and helpless sometimes. But don’t roll those dice and toss tired old terms at a person in pain. When it comes to broken hearts, uncertain futures, loss, pain, sadness, anger, desperation, and shame, clichés suck.
Don’t roll the dice. Just care about people. If you’re worried about not knowing what to say, then say so. Tell this wounded soul that you don’t have words you think will help, but you have arms that can hug, a heart that can care, ears that can hear, and dice in the trash.
Ah, mom clothes. They’re comfy, machine-washable, nondescript, and reminiscent of Mervyn’s department stores. Any Swiffer commercial is a good example of mom clothes. Not yoga pants and LuLaRoe tunics, but Amy-from-Everybody-Loves-Raymond clothes. 42-inch zippers. Sweater sets. The kind of stuff that looks on the hanger like it makes a mean casserole and doesn’t mind your friends coming over after school, as long as you get your homework done. Mass-produced, asexual, most likely embroidered, and worn exclusively by moms and middle school English teachers.
I became a mom at the tender age of 21. I honestly hadn’t thought much about what kind of mom I’d be before I became one. Partly because I’d been told most of my life that I most likely wouldn’t be able to have kids, partly because I was just so young when we were surprised by our first, partly because “mom” is used to describe some seriously uncool things (mom jeans, mom-mobiles…), and I am the cat’s pajamas. It wasn’t until I got pregnant and started binging on A Baby Story episodes that I began to fantasize about motherhood. As I tore through every pregnancy book I could find I was making mental notes and verbal declarations about what I would never do and what I would be a rock star at. When we finally brought our bitty baby boy home I practically devoured the baby development books and lost actual sleep over whether or not it was time to introduce colors or to keep stimulating his brain with black and white patterned images. I didn’t remember being a baby, myself, so not knowing what I’d preferred in a mother as an infant I took my cues from TV, full of baby wash and diaper commercials with moms who were fully dressed at home all day, moms who calmly rubbed lotion on their babies as they sang and cooed, who Swiffered in shoes and had tons of natural light pouring in as they enjoyed smiles in slow motion. These were what moms were supposed to look like, apparently.
I lost myself in these images. I was 21, had never been fully dressed at home unless company was coming over, barely remembered to wear shoes when I left the house, and my baby didn’t let me do ANYTHING slowly. I was already failing, according to what I was seeing.
I went to Sears – you can laugh – at only twenty-one years of age, just over a score. I couldn’t even rent a car, but I could find the mom clothes. I bought pull-on, elastic-waist khaki capris. Embroidered t-shirts with flowers and butterflies on them. Polo shirts, and not the kind with a little horse on them. SWEATER SETS. I, in all my glorious youth, emerged from Sears wearing something with a “one size fits most” tag.
I cut my hair. My long, thick, always-got-me-compliments hair. What’s more, I dyed it dark. I went from the picture of youth – long, flowing blonde hair and a smile – to a caricature, a stereotype, an imposter in polyester.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing old or wrong about haircuts, dark hair, or whatever style of clothes you like (except Crocs – those will always be wrong). There’s not anything wrong with growing older, looking older, or dressing for comfort. Where I went wrong was losing my identity in my new label as Mom. I allowed motherhood to overtake and overwhelm me, to tell me who I was rather than allowing who I was to dictate what type of mom I’d be. I didn’t consult myself in this makeover, only those dang Swiffer ads.
I was miserable.
I had a miserable, colicky, premature baby who screamed every moment that he was awake. I was so tired that I kept the curtains closed and lived without that beautiful natural sunlight pouring in. I hated my new clothes and they fit me awkwardly. I missed my long hair, the color made me look pale, and I was absolutely lost. My friends my age were still in college and the moms with kids the same age as mine seemed too together for my lack of self confidence. I isolated myself, in a dark room with dark hair, and being stuck with yourself when you no longer know who you are is rather disconcerting. I didn’t like me. I didn’t feel like me. I wasn’t me.
About a year later my mom took me shopping, probably for my birthday. Since I was a stay-at-home mom I didn’t have a lot of use for clothes that I wasn’t going to wear to church. I never wore those pull-on khakis, my curves made the embroidered shirts fit poorly, and I felt frumpy. We picked out an outfit or two, a new pair of khaki capris (I still hadn’t learned), and headed over to the shoe department. You can sense the excitement building, can’t you?
I’ve always been tall so I’ve always avoided heels. I stand at just under 6 feet and have always had weird feelings about being even taller (especially taller than guys when I was in middle and high school, amiright ladies?). I owned one single, solitary pair of heels, sensible black ones, that made me feel like the fiercest of female spies but also made me feel like the sorest of thumbs, standing out above the crowd. Those beloved heels had worn down so we grabbed a pair to replace them – pointed toe, low heel, matte black heels. Just for variety’s sake, we also grabbed a pair of brown dress shoes.
Then it happened.
To this day I don’t know why I reached for them. I’d never before considered something like them, never lusted after anything similar in any fashion magazine. I couldn’t imagine what outfit I’d wear them with, and probably secretly felt like I’d never actually wear them, at least not without being embarrassed at how outlandish they were. Red heels. Red, patent, shiny, 4-inch heels. HIGH heels. They were not demure. They were not sensible. They pushed me well over into the 6-foot territory and didn’t go with anything. But I loved them. Oh, how I loved them. I wanted to wear them out of the store. I wanted to wear them while doing dishes. I wanted these red heels that screamed anything but “Mom!” And I got them. Bless my mother, she didn’t know what she was starting that day, but she got them for me and began my long-standing love affair with heels. High heels. Spikey heels. Outlandish heels. Heels with chains. Heels with animal print. Heels with ribbons, feathers, and crystals. Heels that are me. Heels that are fun.
I changed with those red heels.
My mom uniform sank to the back of the closet, then eventually to the garage sale pile. My hair grew back out. I was walking taller, in every sense of the word, in those red heels. Sometimes people noticed them, sometimes they were so at home on my proud feet that they didn’t even stand out. Sometimes I got compliments, sometimes I tripped and got laughs. But I felt great in my red heels… and I was still a mom. In fact, I was a better mom. I began to present myself for who I was, not who I thought I was expected to be. I didn’t Swiffer in shoes, but I laughed with my kids. I spent a lot of time at home and not at mommy-and-me classes , but I opened the curtains, let in the light. I went days in my pajamas at home, but I looked forward to getting dressed when I did go somewhere. I wasn’t a perfect mom, but I was me. I was having fun again.
I see a lot of mom-shaming these days. Celebrities pose in outlandish outfits, moms dye their hair pink, blue, green. They get tattoos, piercings, shave their heads and wear band t-shirts. “You’re somebody’s mother!” the comments exclaim, reinforcing the idea that moms have to wear khaki capris and keep their pantries stocked with Special K bars.
But they don’t.
Unless you want to, but you don’t have to.
You can dye your hair. You can cut it as short as you want or grow it out so long that you sit on it, and you’ll still be a mom. You can wear flats or stilettos – or both in the same day – and still be a mom. You can wear jeans, leggings, dresses, jumpers, skirts, suits, ties, pants, sweats, or khaki capris, and none of those will change the fact that you are a mom. The only affect your clothing will have on you as a parent – as a person – is whether or not it makes you happy. Kim Kardashian and Michelle Duggar are both mothers, momming exactly how they want to in exactly the shoes they want to, and no matter what anyone thinks of their outfits the fact remains that they are moms, they are women, they are people. You are not what you wear, so wear what you want to be who you are.
I get some flak still for my clothing choices. My love for heels has expanded into a love for accessories, and the bigger, flashier, and bolder, the better. My clothing choices are not practical. I own a necklace that could impale someone if they hugged me too quickly and more than a few heels that could be used as weapons. I don’t look like the other moms when I go on field trips, and often find myself swooning over a piece of clothing online only to discover that it’s meant to be a costume. I stand out, whether I want to or not. But I feel better. My red heels elevate me above the lowly image I have of myself, remind me that I am still feminine (when I want to be), still fabulous, still full of sass and life and C-section scars don’t get to take that from me. I’m a mom, but before that I’m a woman, I’m a person, I’m me, and adding a job description didn’t rob me of my personhood.
Last week my son and I were reading about Eleanor of Aquitaine, a seriously kick-butt lady. She was a queen, a duchess, a business woman, a political leader, a strategist, a woman who refused to behave in ways that were expected of her, and a mom. We learned of her marriages, of her intelligence, of her ten children, and then – wait for it – of how she wore cherry red boots into battle.
Eleanor got it.
The Wicked Witch of the West got it.
Red heels are powerful, symbolic, and just so freaking fabulous.
We moms do it all, carry it all, and bear enough guilt and expectation when we’re barefoot… So why not do it wearing some really amazing shoes? Go be you, moms, Swiffer commercials be darned.
Before I get accused of hating the church in any form, and I know that’s the first reaction of some, a little background on me. I met my husband in church. I didn’t grow up in church, really, but I’ve been a Christian for most of my life now. When I met my husband he was a children’s pastor, and about a year later I began volunteering to help out in elementary services. He became a full-time minister before we were married and has remained in full-time ministry ever since. The entirety of our 13-year marriage has been spent in devotion to God, His people, and the local church in the form of full-time ministry. I also hold two degrees – one in counseling, and the other in general ministries, both earned at a Christian university. I literally went to college to learn how to serve the church. I hate no one. I love the church. I love people. My passion for both have led me to learn all that I can so that I may help all that I can. The post you’re about to read is more concern than criticism, for the people who make up God’s church, for the people who have not yet walked through the doors, and for the people who may never come inside.
We have to do better.
Mental illness is a scary term. It encompasses a wide range of experiences, from anxiety to psychosis, so simply labeling someone mentally ill can conjure up a number of images and assumptions – most of them wrong. Whatever the diagnosis, whatever the terminology, the fact remains that mentally ill people are as deserving of the love of Jesus Christ as anyone else. I don’t think anyone could argue with me there, right?
Then why do we treat those who struggle as though they have chosen to suffer in place of salvation?
I will say this now, and likely hundreds more times for the rest of my life – mental illness is not a choice, mental illness is not a lack of faith, mental illness is not a sign of weakness.
I’m getting a little ahead of myself in my fervor, let me back up.
To understand how the church is getting it wrong, the church has to understand what it’s dealing with. Mental illness is just that – an illness. Sometimes it’s a chemical imbalance, sometimes it’s a miswiring or misfiring of the brain, but whatever the cause there is an organic, physical disorder that exists within the mind of the sufferer. It can’t always be seen the way a limp or wheelchair can, but it remains a struggle nonetheless. For some reason, the invisible battles that are waged are often viewed in the church as more spiritual than physical. Yes, we war not with flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12), and there are often very real spiritual battles and oppressions that occur, but this has never been intended as a dismissal of all things unseen. One of my favorite professors in college told the story once of how he, while pastoring a church, was approached in loud desperation. A group of church members were carrying a woman and laid her at his feet, pleading with him to cast the demons out of her as she was surely possessed. The woman was writhing, moaning, foaming at the mouth… and had a seizure disorder. She was experiencing a medical emergency, but the church, in their ignorance of the psychological and insistence upon the spiritual, was of no help.
A woman I knew from church was experiencing a mental health crisis. She was deeply depressed, overwhelmingly anxious, and her social media posts made it obvious she was struggling. Those who attended church with her reached out, with the best of intentions I’m sure, but instead of offering her help or hope, they only hurt and hardened her. Rather than approach her with empathy, those on the outside who enjoyed the good fortune of stable mental health began with the assumption that her struggles were chosen, were spiritual, were the result of a lack of faith rather than a lack of serotonin. None of these were true. She was battling mental illness, a chemical imbalance much in the same vein as type 1 diabetes. Yet the diabetic is not told their insulin is a sin, is not frowned upon for turning down cake at a birthday party. This woman who was struggling, who already felt weak and overwhelmed, was told by people who did not understand her illness how she should handle it. “Pray more!” “You should try fasting!” “Have you asked God to show you where in your life you’re weak?” “Do you have any sins or open doors in your life that would bring this on?” “Read your Bible every day!” “You should find some good verses to tape to your mirror that will uplift your spirit.” “Really go after God!” “Turn up that worship, girl, and praise your way out of this!” None of these helped, obviously, as she was facing a very real disorder that they were minimizing down to a personal faith issue or a simple bad mood. The woman, while absolutely in need of God, was not in need of clichés – she was in need of medication.
Here’s something else the church has to understand about mental illness – it gums up your brain. Someone who is mentally healthy does not and cannot think in the same way that a mentally ill person does. Just as you may breathe more freely than someone with asthma, you cannot expect a mentally ill person to think in the same “logical” sense that you do. To someone overwhelmed by invasive, pervasive thoughts, those thoughts make perfect sense. To someone paralyzed by fear or anxiety, every worry is justified. No person in the midst of a psychotic break, manic episode, or fugue state chose to act the way they do when affected. It is all too easy to view the dark posts of the woman wrestling with depression and think, “What does she have to be sad about? She’s so negative, why doesn’t she cheer up and ask God for some joy?” It’s all too comfortable to use your logic to negate an illogical mind, but it does nothing to heal or help them. We can pray for these brothers and sisters, and we absolutely should, but our listening ears will go a lot further than our “logical” advice.
Which brings me to another area where the church is failing the mentally ill: the lack of licensed professional counselors and the absolute overrun of well-intended laypeople. I know, I know, you’re mad at me for this one. You know of some fantastic ministries led by volunteers who offer “counseling” and see lives changed. The people are genuinely loving, wise, and want to help. But they are playing with fire. Biblical knowledge is not a substitute for mental health training. The best of intentions will never take the place of a license from the state board of examiners that says you know what you’re doing. I feel a mixture of fear and anger when I see these volunteer “counseling” ministries advertised or suggested – fear for the person who is placing their mental health in the hands of someone wildly unqualified to care for it, and anger at the rate at which the layperson offers their advice as counseling. It is not the same. Legally, it’s not even counseling. We allow Biblically-sound but psychologically-illiterate people to care for the most fragile of persons, and it’s a dangerous, dangerous game. Churches need licensed, professional counselors at the ready, and if no LPCs are available then they must be humble enough to pass on the number of one who is. Addiction, anxiety, and depression are some of the most common struggles that bring churchgoers to the altars, and every one of them is serious enough to need a professional’s guidance, not a church pillar’s good intentions. Financial advice, life wisdom, general encouragement, and testimony are all welcome and valuable services offered by church members around you, but when it comes to mental health issues, a professional is not only respectful, it is necessary. It does not matter what life experiences you’ve had, if you are not trained in mental health care then you have no business offering services in the field, and you are rolling the dice on doing more harm than good.
Now that I’ve lost a few friends after that paragraph, I’m sure to isolate a few more with this one: the church fails its mentally ill members by supporting the notion that mental illness is the result of a spiritual lack or physical sin. I once sat in on a very well-known conference, one that is held several times a year in churches all over the country. It has been around for years and comes with very high praise, and at the risk of pitchforks and lawsuits I won’t name it, but I still feel a fire in my belly when I hear it mentioned and consider every church that welcomes it willfully negligent. On the inside of the handout everyone receives, literally one of the first things anyone in attendance sees, is the image of a tree, with illnesses and maladies drawn into the leaves and the “causes” written into the branches and roots. You guessed it – mental illness was “caused” by a spiritual fault, by sin, according to this “ministry” that claimed to want healing for all. Very real, very quantifiable, very devastating diseases and disorders were reduced to the fault of the sufferer and assumed to remain because the mentally ill person chose to keep them. I walked out.
Mental health is health of the mind, just as oral health is health of the mouth, or heart health is health of the heart. Being unseen does not leapfrog it past the physical and into the spiritual. Mental illness is a sickness. It is real. We can pray for all illnesses and all disabilities, absolutely, and we should believe for healing from a God who is still very much alive and able to offer it. BUT, we cannot and should not dismiss every sufferer of a mental illness as a sinner whose lack of faith keeps them suffering. We cannot toss some prayers towards a bipolar person and consider it enough. We cannot shrink away from the schizophrenic in fear and cannot offer verses in place of therapy. God can do it, but that doesn’t mean He does every time, and a lifelong struggle with mental illness is no more indicative of someone’s relationship with God than their height or hair color. It’s in their genetic makeup, a physical issue, and the sooner the church stops mishandling the mentally ill people the sooner they’ll stop leaving the church in droves.
Quick attitude check – when I mentioned the woman earlier who was struggling with anxiety and depression, I said she didn’t need clichés, she needed medication. How did you feel when you read that? In my work and my every day life I meet a lot of people who are faced with mental illness, either their own or that of a loved one, people who will take ibuprofen for a fever, Nyquil for a cold, and yes, insulin for diabetes, but will view medication for mental health struggles as weak, unnecessary, or even optional. “What a shame,” they think, brows furrowed, when they hear of medication, of therapy, “If only they could fight a little harder.”
Church, the mentally ill are fighting. They’re fighting harder than most. And medication is just one tool in their arsenal as they wage war against a disease that would claim their relationships, their jobs, their lives. The mentally ill have to work harder than we do to make it into church. They have to fight harder than we do to make it out of bed some days. They walk into a church full of people who don’t understand them, who judge them, who offer little real help. They get forgotten about or talked about. They’re prayed for but not visited. The mentally ill are those who need our help and love, not our opinions. We can and should pray for them, but we cannot dismiss their continued battles as lack of faith or time with the Father.
God is the Healer, He is Jehovah-Rapha. He can heal people, deliver them of their afflictions, and by His stripes we ARE healed… but what if that healing doesn’t come until we are made complete in His presence, if healing on this earth eludes us and some among us suffer until Heaven? Are they any less faithful? Are they any less Christian? Are we better, stronger, more righteous than those crushed by depression? Is our faith more prized than that of someone paralyzed by anxiety? Is bipolar disorder a lifestyle we’d rather not associate with because we disagree with the actions of the person with the diagnosis? NO! I cannot say it emphatically enough – NO! We are not granted only salvation or mental health – God’s children are allowed His grace in any mental state as much as they are in any physical.
The church must stop viewing mental illness as sinful, optional, fleeting, or even nonexistent. We must implement real programs to help the people around us who are suffering, and if we can’t implement them then we must refer to those who can. We must up our empathy. We must be as concerned for the depressed as we are for the impoverished. We must cease to view any human imperfection as the fault of the imperfect running off the perfection of God. We must shut the heck up about our own opinions and experiences when faced with someone we can’t possibly relate to, and just love them.
Mental illness is in your church, friend. Don’t shudder, don’t judge, just go love.
You keep using that word.
I do not think it means what you think it means.
“Anxiety” is a bit of a buzzword right now. I’m seeing it in a lot of memes, a lot of people are sharing their experiences and struggles on social media. I see it in headlines, in casual conversation, and in my own home. All of the talk has brought anxiety out of the mental health closet and into the more accepting light of the mainstream. People are more comfortable with admitting their inner battles and are acknowledging that they’re fallible. Anxiety has become increasingly discussed, increasingly common, and, I dare say, increasingly misrepresented.
In all of our freedom to discuss anxiety, we’ve watered the true meaning down from a diagnosis to a discomfort.
So what is anxiety, really? Well, first I’ll tell you what it’s not.
Anxiety is not just worry. It is excessive worry. Consuming worry. Worry to the point of terror or impending doom. Worry over situations that may happen, that haven’t happened, that will probably never happen. Worry over seemingly innocuous situations. Worry over the most catastrophic of situations. It’s dread. Anger. Hypervigilance. It’s not nervousness. Butterflies are not anxiety. Anxiety is being unable to stop the fear, oftentimes without anything having triggered the fear… or even anything specific to fear.
Anxiety is not stress. Anxiety causes great stress, and it is distressing. But feeling the weight of an upcoming project or bill does not an anxiety diagnosis amount to. Anxiety and stress are not mutually exclusive, but one can very much exist without the other. Whereas stress fades with the task at hand, anxiety is a chemical reaction or imbalance that will remain long after clicking the “submit” button.
Anxiety is NOT insecurity. Who knows if it’s the rise of social media, Photoshop, or the general public getting ahold of contouring, but we have become an image-obsessed and insecurity-driven society. Confidence has become such an exception that it’s often met with contempt. We have come to accept insecurity as such a norm that we joke about it, bond over it, and rather than build one another up we often resort to comparing our perceived flaws. This isn’t anxiety.
Anxiety cannot be turned off with happy thoughts. I cannot stress this enough. This is the main difference between situations that can cause anxious feelings and actual anxiety. Someone in the throes of anxiety cannot just “cheer up”, “find the silver lining”, “have a little faith”, “trust that everything will be alright”, or – and especially – “calm down”. When someone can’t breathe because their body is in the midst of an anxiety attack or when a child is overtaken by a fear they can’t explain, telling them to “calm down” is about as helpful as throwing a bucket of water on a wildfire. If only an anxious person had that kind of control over their reaction!
So what is anxiety?
It’s many things.
There are different types of anxiety. Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, various phobias…. Did you know hoarding is an anxiety disorder? Did you know children can be diagnosed with any of these anxiety disorders? Anxiety is not one specific thing and is rarely the same for any two people suffering from it.
Anxiety can be triggered by anything… or nothing at all. Anxiety can be chemical, a misfiring of the brain – or even an imbalance of hormones – that causes an anxiety reaction. It can be situational, such as the fear of heights, crowds, spiders, germs. There are various techniques, therapies, treatments for anxiety, and results will vary by individual. The beginnings and ends are often unknown.
Your anxiety may not look like my anxiety. Some sufferers are able to calm their bodies with breathing exercises and distraction. Some are in need of medication to slow their body’s response to perceived danger. Some meet with professionals frequently, some require in-patient therapy, and some are so overwhelmed by the paralyzing fear that they have built their lives around avoiding any and all potential triggers. Some anxiety is eventually outgrown, some sticks around and wages war for a lifetime.
Anxiety often doesn’t look like what you think it does. My own counseling degree still left me completely taken by surprise when I encountered anxiety in someone who wasn’t just rocking in a corner, breathing and counting to 10. Especially in children, anxiety can manifest as anger, rage, irritability. My son’s principal described him as walking through the halls looking like a wounded dog, ready to snap in defense. What you see as a defiant child can be a kid whose body is telling him he’s in danger and he is instinctively lashing out in self-preservation. Where you see a pack rat, someone with a hoarding disorder sees all of the possible bad things that could happen if they let go of an object, all of the what ifs and eventualities they have covered by keeping something they may need or by giving in to their desire to acquire. What you may perceive as laziness, flakiness, or indifference to a friendship could very well be someone who is crippled by social anxiety or agoraphobia, who is terrified of going new places, crowded places, any places. Anxiety doesn’t always look like someone shrinking back against a wall or breathing into a paper bag. It looks like someone who feels a total loss of control over their world, like someone whose body is telling them to fight, like someone who feels the urge to run, or freeze, or avoid. It looks like someone who is exhausted, who can’t rest, who only wants to rest. Someone who makes frequent trips to the bathroom or who doesn’t want to leave it altogether. Anxiety can look like stomach aches, restlessness, rage, chest pains. It can look like a child who makes frequent trips to the nurse or the mom who can’t turn off her brain long enough to fall asleep. Anxiety is a shapeshifting, deceptive cloud that can masquerade as many things – no paper bag-breathing required.
Anxiety is one size fits all. While some populations and people are more likely to experience anxiety, none are immune. Anxiety affects men. It afflicts Christians. It travels down generations or pops up unexpectedly. Diet, age, weight, social class, gender, race, faith, level of education – none of these are safeguards against anxiety. Young people are often dismissed as “being too young to worry” or “not having anything real to worry about”. Wealthy people are often regarded as having nothing to worry about, as though you could pay anxiety off. Church members suffering from anxiety can be thought of as having little faith. Men experiencing anxiety can be viewed as weak. The reality is that anxiety can strike anyone, anywhere, from any background, and anyone’s opinion of their experience does nothing to help them overcome it.
Someone’s disbelief in the sincerity or seriousness of anxiety does jack squat. You can’t disagree someone’s anxiety away. You can’t tell them to stop worrying and expect it to work. Reminding someone of all the good in their lives doesn’t heal them, either. “Calm down” doesn’t negate anxiety. Listing off facts about non-venomous spiders doesn’t quell arachnophobia, nor do statistics about plane crashes when flying. Your words and beliefs can’t and won’t dismiss anxiety, but….
You can help. Someone who is overwhelmed with anxious feelings or thoughts is hurting. They’re panicked. They need to feel safe, grounded, and heard. Whether you understand their fears or not, it’s important that they not be made to feel like a sideshow for them. The best thing you can do for someone you care about when they’re in the middle of an anxiety attack is to say, “I hear you. I’m here. You can keep talking to me if you want.” Not everyone remembers their breathing exercises (in the nose, out the mouth) when they’re crippled by dread. Medication can take a while to take effect. If you can help the person leave the situation that is triggering their feelings, do it. Keep them talking, keep them breathing. Don’t force anything, don’t rush anything. If they need to stay and put their back against a wall, shield them from judging eyes. If they need to talk about their worst fears, don’t cut them off with your rebuttals and statements of how unlikely they are. If they need a hug, give it. If they need space, provide it. They won’t die from the fear, but they’re not always convinced of this, so stay with them, breathe with them, be an anchor so they know they’re not going to float away.
More than anything, anxiety is not weakness. It is not an inability to control oneself, it is not a lack of faith or gratitude, it is not a measure of intelligence. It is not the fault of the anxious and cannot be dismissed by the disbelieving. Anxiety is hard. It’s a battle, and those fighting it are warriors. To live in fear and still step out takes a lot of guts, a lot of work, and sometimes a lot of (perceived) risk. Be proud of those you know who are fighting their battle, who are honest about their feelings, who work so dang hard at just getting through the day sometimes. It’s not easy living your life when your body is convincing you it could end at any moment. Anxiety is not weakness. It’s not trendy. It’s not made-up, attention-seeking, or frivolous. It’s real, it sucks, and someone you know is suffering from it.
My dear, sweet, child, the fruit of my womb, the tapestry of my husband and I woven together with unique purpose, my mini-me, my legacy, my charge, my heart, my pride – sometimes it really freakin’ hurts to listen to you.
It’s not your voice – you sound like a heavenly harp (albeit sometimes a harp plugged into an amp turned up to 11). It’s not the adorable way you still mispronounce a few words (it’s one of my “fravorite” things about your stories). It’s not even that sometimes you want to talk 4 hours after you were supposed to be asleep and I’m still only 12 minutes into my 50-minute Netflix show (okay, maybe it’s a little bit of that). It’s that sometimes, as much as I truly, madly, deeply love you, I just really don’t care about Minecraft. Or cars. Or that YouTube vlogger. Or the nuanced differences between Shopkins. Or the Rubik’s cube algorithm you came up with that is just ever so slightly different from the one you used before. Or the combination of buttons and triggers that help you land an Ollie on that skateboarding game. I love you, dear child, but it hurts to listen to sometimes.
I spend all day listening. I listen to you. I listen to podcasts. I listen to the tv, the radio, the honking horns and squealing children in the pick up line. I listen to how your day was. I listen to how your dad’s day was. I listen to my family, my surroundings, my kitchen timer, and my gut. I am constantly listening. Spending so much time in the state of receiving audio input means that by a certain point in my day, I’ve reached my quota . I’m full. I’d like to talk. I’d like to sit. I’d like to be afforded the opportunity to listen to something of my choosing rather than remain in the state of vigilance that parental listening requires.
“Uh huh” won’t work. “Neat” doesn’t cut it. You are so deeply passionate about what you’re saying, child, that I can’t offer up half-interested automated responses when you pause to study my reaction. Your eyes are wide with excitement and your body is coiled with anticipation. You are so exhilarated by whatever paragraph you just monologued that an offering of “wow, that’s cool” may as well be a slap in your eager little face. No, your speeches require listening. Lots of listening. More listening than I want to offer, and seemingly more listening than I feel I can give.
Yet I listen.
There will be those who remark that the years are short, that someday you won’t want to talk so much, that I should treasure the Lego talk because too soon I’ll have closed doors instead of open mouths. I’ll be chided by mothers who would give anything to hear their child’s voice again and waiting mothers who would give anything to have a child at all. I’ll be met with criticism and judgement and disbelief, but no matter anyone’s feelings about me, it doesn’t make it any easier to listen to you describe – in detail – every single Hot Wheel you have that I can plainly see right before me with my own eyes.
Take note, child and naysayers, I did not say that I don’t listen. I said it hurt. I don’t ignore. I don’t dismiss. But I do give deeply of myself when the day should already be over and still I am asked to listen. It is a sacrifice to listen, yes. Whatever anyone thinks a mother’s ears should be for, they have a limit, and mine meet it every day. I can only feign so much interest in rubber band bracelets, and once I’ve given you all I have, you ask for more. It hurts.
I do not listen because I should. I don’t listen because I have to. I don’t listen because I’m your mom, I don’t listen because I have nothing else to do, and I definitely don’t listen because I care that much about different breeds of turtles. I listen because I love you. I listen, though it hurts, because you are special to me, though your chosen topic may not be. I listen because someday there will be topics you won’t want to talk about and I need you to know you can say anything. I listen because someday, as cliché as it is, you won’t tell me much. I listen because it helps me know you, because you are your own person and I want to encourage you to like what you like without any outside input telling you that you shouldn’t. I listen because I want to model for you, want you to see that caring about someone doesn’t mean being selective in your interest level. I listen because you have to know that we don’t have to agree to be kind, that you can sometimes learn things you never knew you never knew, just by staying quiet. I listen because it’s important to you, and because I remember the disappointment in your voice when you could tell I didn’t want to. I listen because children are not meant to only be seen and not heard, because you have unique things to say in the most magical ways sometimes. I listen, my dear, even though I don’t want to, because I know you want me to.
That last paragraph sounds a little more noble than it feels when I’m thick in the quicksand that is one of your stories. It amazes me how only 26 letters can combine to create so very many different words, how you can weave together a seemingly infinite explanation or take 5 1/2 minutes to answer a yes or no question. You have so many words, so very many words, and you’ve gone from the cooing little infant to the child who wants to make sure I hear all of your words. I cannot imagine being interested in some of the things you are and I definitely don’t think Pokémon card trades are nearly as consequential as you do. It hurts to listen sometimes, baby, because sometimes your stories bore me. Sometimes they interrupt me. Sometimes they come at the end of the day when I have so far exceeded my listening limit that the line is a dot to me. Sometimes I feel my chest tighten in panic as I realize that your story truly does have no end. Sometimes I feel irritation flare up in my gut when you begin yet another discourse over American versus Italian sports cars. Sometimes I just want to sit in a comfy spot with a cup of caffeine and scroll mindlessly through Pinterest. Sometimes all 3 of you, dear darling children, want me to listen at once. And by sometimes, I mean every dad gummed day.
It hurts to listen sometimes. Pregnancy hurt. Delivering you hurt. Breastfeeding and first days of school and burning myself while cooking bacon this morning hurt, but these things were all worth it, and all were acts of service I took on as a way to express my love for you. I humble myself, don’t tell myself that everything I hear in a day is meant for my enjoyment, I suck it up and listen. I usually end up hiding in the closet for a while afterwards, but I listened, made sure you were heard.
So please, dear child, don’t take it personally when my eyes glaze over, when my breathing turns into sighs, when my face turns heavenward in a desperate plea to your Maker to distract you with something else long enough to silence your oration. I love you more than words can say – though I’m sure someday soon you’ll find enough words to get close – it just hurts, actually hurts to listen right now. Instead, appreciate that I’m trying, recognize the sacrifice that my love is offering you in the form of attempted interest. I love you, sweet one, and you often tell me the silliest, most interesting things. I love hearing about your day, love knowing what makes you laugh. I love your nerdy interests and creative ideas. I can only know you by listening to you, and I want to know you as deeply as I can, my child. It’s just that if it’s after around 10PM, I’m gonna need you to shut your pie hole because mama’s done for the day. Now go ask your brother about black hole theories.
Kudos to those of you who’ve made it this far and haven’t just passed a snap judgement about me based on the title. Hear me out, you’ll get it.
My kids are loud, ya’ll. Like, loud. They have big feels and leave big messes and have big fights and very big opinions about whether or not an apple is a snack. They don’t go right to sleep whenever bedtime rolls around, they don’t always eat their whole dinner, and sometimes they act out in public. They have to be told to do their chores, for cryin’ out loud. Some have special needs and some have weird hobbies. Some have a hard time making friends and some don’t ever stop talking. Some have medical needs. Some have to go to frequent appointments. One of them eats raw onions and one of them won’t eat any onions. All of them are fragile in one way or another. These kids, these loud, difficult, unexpected kids are ruining my life.
My perfectly-planned, Pinterest-inspired, magazine-worthy life. The comfortable life I’d planned, the easy life I’d imagined. Every day doesn’t end in a life lesson and a hug while emotional music plays unobtrusively in the background, the way I’d intended. My boys dress in bright, comfortable clothes without ANY regard for my love of sweater vests and the girl doesn’t have a British accent, despite how adorable I find them.
My life, ya’ll, it’s derailed. The youngest was born with those life-threatening food allergies that forced us all to change the way we eat. All this cooking I do now, I had to learn it, and all the go-to, easy, cheap meals we enjoyed are gone. All these groceries we buy now, we have to get the expensive stuff and read the ingredients and be mindful about what we put into our bodies. Insert eye roll, amiright?
This isn’t how it’s supposed to go.
The middle one has these special needs, needs I never anticipated or even knew existed. We’ve had to educate and advocate in ways I previously viewed as embarrassing. We’ve had to make changes and apologies and completely shift our views on education, emotions, discipline, nutrition, medication… basically everything we thought we had an opinion and a grasp on with regards to raising children. We’ve had to humble ourselves and admit how little we knew while navigating through a world that doesn’t want to be told they didn’t know, either.
This isn’t how it’s supposed to be.
I’m supposed to be pursuing my master’s degree right now, or volunteering, or meeting my friends for lunch, or working leisurely at a makeup store for the discount. My kids are all supposed to be in school, with nary a worry or phone call. I sat out for 10 years, waiting for my youngest to start kindergarten so I could wave goodbye to staying home and hello to the new chapter. Instead one of those kids had some unplanned special needs and needed more of me than I’d ever planned on giving. There’s nothing about this on my dream board. There were no chapters about this in those parenting books. I don’t see any Instagram accounts featuring parents at home with sagging shoulders and tear-streaked faces. This isn’t the mom I set out to be.
Heck, if we really start pointing fingers, all the blame lies on my big one, the oldest, the unplanned one, the surprise baby I wasn’t supposed to be able to have and wasn’t prepared for when I did. I was supposed to be touring Europe with my husband, not recovering from an emergency C-section and caring for a colicky preemie. He’s a great kid and I really don’t have any complaints, but he’s not supposed to struggle at all, ever, right? Hard days at school aren’t a part of my plan. Sickness, teachers, bullies… I didn’t anticipate any of these things going the way they sometimes do, and I don’t like it.
My kids were supposed to be “normal”. They weren’t supposed to have special needs, different needs, or need so much from me.
Days were supposed to be filled with memories and laughter and craft projects and cookie decorating. All of the days, not just the special occasion ones.
I was supposed to sign my kids out of school for surprise laser tag tournaments, not specialist appointments.
This isn’t the life I had planned. This isn’t the mom I was supposed to be.
I was supposed to be peaceful, never lose my temper. I was supposed to be GOOD at housekeeping. Laundry always done and put away, dishes the same. I was supposed to be the room mom, the Pinterest mom, the team mom, the enviable mom. The mom who always has snacks and sanitizer at the ready and definitely doesn’t leave the house in pajamas. Motherhood was supposed to be easy, instinctive. I was supposed to be well-rested and smokin’ hot and patient and full of joy all the time.
But that’s the mom I thought I’d be for the kids I thought I’d have.
The kids I do have need a mom who is fierce, who sacrifices, who researches and learns and prays and tries. They need a mom who can make the appointments, read all the labels, who is in touch with her emotions and can identify them honestly. They need a mom who will hold them when they cry and push them when they pause. They don’t need a mom who is holding tightly to an ordeal or harboring resentment towards reality, they need me, the mom who is as surprisingly flawed and different as they are.
They don’t care if I’m room mom or sanitizer mom or laundry-always-folded mom. (They do care about the snacks, though.)
They don’t care if they never get peanut butter sandwiches.
They don’t care how young I was when I got started or how old I feel when they blow out their candles.
They don’t need a mom who gets 10 hours of sleep, they need a mom who will be there when they wake up in the night, or when they see the sun rise because they couldn’t sleep at all.
They don’t care about my level of education, they care about my level of involvement.
They’re (obviously) not bothered that our house isn’t always magazine-ready or that I drive the minivan I swore I’d never own.
They don’t think I’ve fallen short because I meet their needs instead of my expectations.
They don’t know what my plans were or how different life looks from how I thought it would. They’re not comparing me to ideals or media fantasies. They don’t think I’m a watered-down version of an image dreamed up in the thick of naivete… they just know I’m their mom. And whatever I had imagined, whatever standards I’d set in place long ago and fail to meet almost daily, whatever my days look like, being their mom is infinitely better than being the mom I thought I’d be.
The mom I thought I’d be didn’t account for their personalities, their inside jokes, their talents and quirks. It didn’t anticipate their unique and life-altering needs, but that mom also didn’t know how much those needs would improve her. The mom I thought I’d be didn’t know how a challenge could become a blessing. The mom I was going to be wasn’t at home working, so she wasn’t able to discover a passion and a community that was waiting for her. The kids I thought I’d have aren’t the ones I’ve got, so I didn’t know about the little freckles on their backs or ticklish spots on their feet. The kids I thought I’d have didn’t present any struggles, but also weren’t interested in the most unique things that expand our horizons. The kids in my dreams were compliant and well-mannered, and while I could do without some of the atrocities committed at our dinner table, I’d happily take my hilarious, boisterous, unique, and imperfect kids over the fantasy ones.
My life is ruined, ya’ll. Wrecked, destroyed, completely unrecognizable from what I thought it would be. And I love it.
I prefer it.
I cherish it.
These babies who changed me, who ruined who I thought I’d be and made me someone even better, I like them way better. These flawed, loud, restless, challenging kids are 100 times more preferable to whatever I thought I’d be getting. They’re worth changing my plans for. They’re worth a ruined life. They’re worth adjusting myself for. What’s the alternative – resenting my kids for not meeting my expectations? Making us all miserable as I try to force us into molds? Considering us all failures for being real people? No, my reality is wonders better than my expectation. It’s harder, sure. It’s louder. It has a lot more pee than I ever could have imagined. But it comes with my kids, my life, my family who rides in my minivan. This is what I have, and it is nothing like what I thought it’d be, thankfully.
This is the mom I am. I’m not perfect. I still mourn from time to time. I grieve what I thought I’d have or miss what I thought I’d do. I’m not smokin’ hot and I won’t be planning any class parties. But that’s not what my kids need of me. While I’m happy to let my kids ruin my life, I’m determined not to ruin theirs. I can’t parent pretend kids or hold them to my imagined standard. I have to let them ruin my life, tear down the expectations I had, so we can all build ourselves up together, so we can all grow in who we are.
The mom I thought I’d be was an expert. She knew it all, planned it all, cleaned it all, folded it all. She had everything under control and everything went perfectly as she’d willed it. But the plans I made about the mom I thought I’d be, were made when I wasn’t even a mom. I was expecting expert-level mastery at the rank of apprentice. I didn’t become a mother until they came along. Like building a house over the phone, I had lots of plans and plenty of imagination, but until I was in the dirt and holding a hammer, I had no idea what I was doing.
It’s easy to plan, it’s hard to implement, and it’s painful to amend. Our lives are ruined by reality, and it hurts to accept. We feel like failures compared to who we thought we’d be. But if we’ll give ourselves credit for who we actually are we’ll see that a ruined life is the most beautiful opportunity for our own unique one. If we can let go of our expectations and embrace our growth instead, our dreams will be ruined but our lives will be precious.
My kids are ruining my life, and helping me to knit together an even better one.
I saw a video a while back, a speech that was going viral of an admiral encouraging graduates to make their beds every day. He was very moving, very convincing, he made a lot of sense and roused a sense of excitement for every new day. It was simple – if you make your bed every day, you will have accomplished the first task of the day, have a sense of pride, and could go on to change the world.
I was inspired.
Of all the ways we humans divide ourselves into two camps – political parties, mac vs. pc, north vs. south, Backstreet Boys vs. N*Stink – I had always lived firmly and unapologetically as a member of Team Don’t Make the Bed Except for Special Occasions. Heck, there were plenty of times as a teenager when I plopped into bed with corners of the mattress exposed and sheets crumpled against the wall. I’m an insomniac so I spend a lot of awake time in bed and never paid much attention to how it’s presented, only how comfortable it is and how many potential projects are within reach. I’m a thrasher and a kicker, bless my poor husband, and such a blanket hog that we actually have TWO king size blankets on our queen size bed. I toss and turn and have a pile of mismatched pillows ready to greet me at every twist. To paraphrase, my bed is a mess. Always has been. And my husband is a saint.
It’s not for want of respectable bedding. We have a beautiful linen set with matching throw pillows. It’s fancy and fluffy and inviting, it’s just usually folded up at the foot of the bed.
So when I saw this speech shared again and again, I felt inspired to try something new. I decided to leave behind my slumming ways of slumber and tackle the world one pillow sham at a time. I was going to be a real adult.
So here’s how making my bed every day changed me: it didn’t.
I only made it two days.
Ya’ll, it’s such a waste of time.
Remember in Along Came Polly when Ben Stiller’s character figured up how much time he’d devoted to throw pillows in his lifetime? Waste, ya’ll. I didn’t feel accomplished on those mornings, no more so than I did after a cup of caffeine. And when bedtime rolled around I didn’t feel greeted by a crisp, pristine bed. No, I had to take more time to take those dern pillows off the bed and fold the fancy comforter down.
Besides, within 10 minutes of having made my bed look like a hotel suite fit for royalty, it had a kid on it. Sometimes up to 3 of ’em.
No, ya’ll. I can conquer the world without having to add more tasks that take more time. Why does my room need to be ready for visitors? Ain’t nobody havin’ any business in my bedroom, especially if they’re showing up unannounced. The only people who would be barging into my bedroom unexpectedly would be police officers or EMTs, and if there’s a need for them I sure ain’t worried about these throw pillows on the floor.
Nope. Nuh uh. Not doin’ it. With all due respect to the Admiral I can see how making a bed every morning can set a tone of accomplishment and check a box for some folks, but I’m not one of ’em. I need to worry more about remembering to wear shoes when I leave the house than what my bed looks like while my kids are wrestling on it.
Making my bed for company and holidays adds a stately air to the whole affair, so why would I want that special to wear off? I want my guests to know that if they see my bed made it was for them, I want them to know I took pains to prepare for their visit. See those shams? They mean you’re special, friend. If my pillows match when you visit me it is high praise. But if I’m getting up in the morning that’s task enough, and I’m not making my bed while I could be drinking my sweet tea.
Several months back I was given the INCREDIBLE and humbling opportunity to spend a work weekend with some really amazing ladies, women who I look up to and respect and who have their acts together. I showed up ready to soak up all the wisdom and knowledge I could, making note of everything I could possibly incorporate into my own life and writing.
They all made their beds.
Maybe it was for show. Maybe one of them did it because she’s the type of person who does that kind of thing and everyone else felt kind of guilty about not doing it so they did it, too. Maybe they all felt like they were under the microscope of these successful women and they needed to put their best image out there. Maybe they just were being polite guests. But they all did it. I’ll be honest, I did it, too. Not because I wanted to and not because it made my day start any differently, but because the mountains of blankets stood in stark contrast to the sea of smoothed sheets and I felt exposed for being so slovenly. Ya’ll, it didn’t change me. It didn’t excite me or awaken me or get me going. No more so than sweet tea and rap music, anyway.
I learned nothing from making my bed, apart from the fact that I’m surprisingly passionate about not spending time arranging pillows. I didn’t become a better person and I didn’t see the world anew. I’m not suddenly more efficient and I didn’t remember to put my shoes on before rushing out the door for school pick up. So I’ll keep doing me and you keep doing you, and if you want to fall into bed every night having to search for the sheet you kicked down the night before, go for it. I’ll remain impressed (and slightly intimidated) by those of you who make your bed every morning, and you can fantasize about all the things I’m doing with the extra time I’ve saved not being bothered by those dern throw pillows. And the next time you’re at my house, if you see my bed made, you can puff your chest out and raise your head high knowing that it was all for you.
You’ve seen them on tv – Reid on Criminal Minds, Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory or Young Sheldon, the brothers Crane from Frasier. Gifted people, geniuses in layspeak, full of quirks and visible differences. We laugh, we marvel, we love their character… yet we rarely encounter people like them in our every day lives.
… or do we?
Statistically, no, there aren’t a whole lot of gifted people running around, forming packs in the library and taking over the local comic book stores. But they are out there, roaming, usually fairly well camouflaged. They don’t give away their locations with the tell-tale bowties and glasses you’re looking for, oh no. They’ve adapted and taken on a new form in order to better blend in with their surroundings – human being.
They look like regular people, regular kids even. They wear shirts that don’t button down and aren’t (usually) carrying briefcases, so it’s pretty hard to tell from a casual glance over the plain which solitary figures are the gifted ones. If you see a person running towards you, it’s a pretty good idea to step out of the way whether they’re carrying a travel chess set or not. It’s gotten pretty hard to spot the gifted kids, so it stands to reason that it’s gotten even harder to know what to do should you encounter one. That’s where this handy little guide comes in.
So, what should you do if you happen upon a gifted kid in the wild?
Freeze. They can’t see you if you don’t move.
Say hi. One of the reasons their human costumes are so effective at camouflaging the gifted is that they actually are human. They’re people. They’re not superhumans, they’re not freaks, they’re not innately arrogant. They’re people. They have friends and flaws and faults. They won’t ignore you if you don’t start the conversation off by quoting Stephen Hawking, so just say hi.
Since gifted kids can smell blood within a 4-mile radius, make sure you’re not approaching a gifted person without all wounds having been dressed. Also kidding.
Don’t quiz them. Seriously. If you know a kid is gifted, don’t make them prove it to you. They’re not endless trivia fountains and they don’t know everything. Giftedness has more to do with how a brain works than what a brain holds. Those brains can hold an awful lot of amazing stuff, though it’s usually not at all what you’d think to ask them about. Converse, don’t quiz. My kids aren’t novelties, they aren’t there for your entertainment or your tests. Let them be more boy than brain or more girl than gift.
Get to know who they are instead of poking around for what they know.
Immediately feel threatened by their gifted label. Also kidding, though this seems to be a horribly common reaction. Recognizing giftedness in one child does not negate the abilities or gifts in another. Gifted is a category, in some cases a diagnosis. It relates to IQ score and asynchronous development, not competition and elitism. The intellectually gifted are not an aggressive species, so there is no need to defend yourself or your children upon an encounter with one of their kind.
If you meet a gifted kid in the wild, don’t expect them to behave like Reid, Sheldon, or even the gifted kid you know next door. Because the pool of gifted people is so small and characterized by being so far removed from the intellectual norm, they’re all vastly different from one another. There are characteristics that can be recognized as typical, but remember that you are dealing with an atypical group. They don’t travel in pods or have a secret handshake. They can struggle. They can have learning disabilities, mood or personality disorders, sensory issues, physical disabilities, or none of the above. Some gifted kids get along fine in life and others wage internal battles. Some gifted kids get all A’s and some fail classes. Some love museums and some are so overwhelmed by anxiety that they can’t bear to visit one. Giftedness doesn’t look like a stereotype, so brace yourself to be surprised by the person you encounter.
Do not, under any circumstance, utter the phrase, “Every child is gifted”. This will be interpreted by the mother of the free-ranging gifted kid as a sign of aggression. Yes, every child is A gift, and yes, all children have gifts, but no, not every child is gifted. This would be akin to saying every child is dyslexic, every child is diabetic, every child is tall. Giftedness is a label applied based on IQ and how often it occurs relative to the norm. It is a quantifiable deviation, a measurable difference, and by definition cannot apply to everyone. Acknowledging the giftedness of a child is not an affront to your own precious jewels at home. Giftedness does not make a child better or worse than the neurotypical kid next to them. It’s just how their brain works, and it’s who they are. To dismiss their uniqueness by applying it broadly to everyone is to ignore the black-and-white data that proves they are different. And to be honest, gifted kids are one of the most underserved populations in schools, often dismissed as having no real needs or being “smart enough” to adapt themselves that they can be sent to a corner with a book and a high five. Gifted parents are tired of having to fight the stereotypes and feelings of elitism that get applied to their kids’ unique needs, so they’re likely to turn on you if you get snippy or dismissive.
Treat them normally. No really. Gifted kids are, in reality, kids. They get excited about stuff like Minecraft, princesses, farts, and candy. They also get excited about physics, coding, art, literature, architecture, engineering, paleontology, trains, plains, automobiles, and in my kiddos’ case, various local laws and ordinances surrounding exotic animals in the US. The odd duck still waddles like a duck. They’re not a typical kid, but they’re still kids. Intellectually they may be decades ahead of their age peers, but emotionally and socially they may be a little behind. Just because a kid has an adult brain doesn’t mean they have the capacity to know what to do with it. Imagine getting a Hennessey Venom GT as a newly-licensed 16-year-old (car reference provided by the automobile-obsessed kid). It’s a powerful, fast, expensive car that will catch a lot of looks and do a lot of stuff, but you, the inexperienced and even timid driver don’t know just how to handle it. No matter how cool and different your car is, you’re still a teenager who isn’t that great at driving it yet. These kids are in a similar seat – so much power under the hood, but little capacity to harness it yet. Let them be kids. Don’t scoff if they mess up or turn your nose up if they make a fart sound under their armpit. Having trouble tying their shoes or regulating their emotions doesn’t make them imposters, it makes them kids.
Seriously, don’t be threatened. I can’t stress this enough. While not all entirely docile, they’re also not predators. The way the gifted brain is wired means that emotions and sensations are experienced differently, intensely. Whoa. There is no disappointment, there is devastation. There is no jolly, there is elated. These kids are intense, but they’re not threats. They’re not out to make you or your kids look bad. They just are what they are, and if a child makes an adult feel insecure, then the adult is who needs more self-examination. I can’t say it enough – they’re kids. Not threats. They don’t need to be taken down a notch or knocked off any pedestals. Don’t make it a personal mission to add gifted kids’ self esteem to your trophy room. Whatever they are is not representative of what you or your child isn’t – it’s just who they are.
Don’t armchair diagnose or assume different = disorder. Yes, there are a huge number of gifted people who are twice exceptional – who are gifted and have a learning disorder, mood disorder, or some other type of hurdle. A person can have an IQ of 170 and be dyslexic, hyperactive, autistic, or even incontinent. Gifted people are not immune to the misfirings and crosswirings of the brain. But they are also not all coping with additional diagnoses. I’ve been asked more than once, “What’s wrong with him?” Apart from your rudeness, not much. My profoundly gifted child is quirky and he has struggles that make some tasks or situations hard or even unbearable for him, but that doesn’t mean what you think it means. I’m really just beating around the bush – all gifted people are not autistic. Lots are, but not all are. It does an immense disservice to the autistic community to assume different always equals autistic, or autistic always equals quirky. You can’t lump a bunch of stuff together you don’t relate to and call it autism. For every time I’ve been asked what’s wrong with my child, I’ve been asked 30 times if he’s been evaluated for autism spectrum disorder. Yeah, 4 times now. Nope, 5. If autism is an interest or a concern for you, then please educate yourself via the immense resources and willing families available now. If you want to understand more about what makes a different person so different, ask them. If a child has a diagnosis, that is his family’s journey and not one you’re entitled to. Explore instead of stereotype. Get to know someone for who they are and not any labels that may pop up.
While not endangered or protected, please refrain from making a gifted child a trophy. Remember, they’re kids, not novelties.
I hope this guide proves helpful as you resume your interactions among the people around you. Remember that all people are people, all kids are kids, and all should be treated accordingly. The gifted children sprinkled around the edges of the herd are no danger to you, so allow yourself the opportunity to appreciate them in their natural habitat – childhood. Take in their creativity and ability to think outside of the box. Note their intense emotions and, while they can prove mercurial at times, how they inspire change and empathy and passion. Drink in their humor, their sarcasm, the language that far exceeds their years. It’s okay to laugh when one trips and falls, kids do that. But let yourself appreciate just how beautiful and unique and cool they are the next time you find yourself face to face with a gifted kid in the wild.