The Church is Not Our Mirror

I should have written this a long time ago. Back when I felt it stirring in my heart. Back when the words began burning in me so hot I could barely stay seated. Back when it first kept me up all night. I apologize for making excuses and finding distractions. I’m writing it now.

When I look around the Church – general church, not any specific congregation – I see something troubling. Or rather, it’s what I don’t see that troubles me. I see a sea of faces, similar to mine. Families greeting each other, all resembling one another. Friends hugging and chatting and relating to one another as they embark on nearly identical life journeys. This is not a bad thing  – we are the family of God, and fellowship is a powerful thing. What troubles me is how alike we all are, mostly two-parent, white families of comparable socioeconomic standing. Again, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with being a white, middle class family, no apologies are to be made for who you are. But I know that this fellowship, this flock, is not a representative sampling of our city, of our world.

Where are the families of different colors, cultures?

Where are the single parents?

Where are the single people?

Where are the addicted, the poor, the broken, the unemployed, the homeless?

Where are the gay people? Where are the trans people? Where are the families with two moms, two dads?

THIS is what our world looks like. THESE are the people we don’t have sitting beside us.

Why?

The Church is not our mirror – it’s God’s. It was never meant to reflect our own image back to us, it was intended for God to see His reflection in us. If we only fill the pews with people like ourselves then we have not furthered the kingdom, we have only created a mirror. If the only people you know live lives exactly like your own, then please, meet new people. More people. Hurting people. Different people. People Jesus died for and longs for. People who He created with as much care and loves just as much as He loves you.

Here comes Justification Jones, ready to argue.

“But Jennifer, they are living a life of sin!”

Show me someone who isn’t. Show me a parishioner who does not struggle, who did not come to Jesus as a sinner. If you think being a sinner precludes anyone from meeting Jesus then I’m sorry to say you’ve read your Bible wrong. God knows when sin is present, He knows what His Word says. He does not need our opinion of His children. He’s not interested in our judgement of them, He’s interested in their hearts, He’s desperate for their company. Becoming a Christian, as you as Christians will know, does not make us perfect or suddenly insulate us from a world full of hurt. On the contrary, becoming a Christian means we are called to go out into the world and make His name famous. His blood was as much for their sins as it was for ours, and we are cheating His sacrifice on the cross by keeping it to ourselves.

A few years ago I shared a story on Facebook, an experience that really opened my eyes. I was photographing two beautiful brides, the southern tradition of bridal portraits, stunning blondes in gorgeous gowns. They posed fantastically and created some of my favorite images to this day. They were young, happy, and in love. Unbeknownst to the onlookers and gawkers around us, they were also sisters. Their weddings were not far apart, and it was a unique opportunity to capture their friendship during this special time in their lives. But what I knew to be two sisters sharing a memory looked to outsiders to be two women in a romantic relationship. Let me tell you, we got some looks. Pointing. Scowling. People flustered with their disapproval, not knowing what to do with the judgement that washed all over them.  Ugly looks. Mean looks. Mad looks. Attention is normal during bridal portraits, it comes with looking like a princess in an ordinary world, and ordinarily every bride is greeted with smiles and congratulations, maybe a few inquiries as to the big day. But not this day. Only one couple stopped to admire these ladies’ beauty and offer their congratulations – two men, arm in arm, out walking their dog. I don’t hate the Church, don’t misinterpret me. I love my God and His people and have been involved in full time ministry for more than 13 years now. I just want better from the church. That day I saw that we as Christians had been getting something very wrong. None of those looks, those scowls, not one furrowed brow or pursed lip made me want to go to church. I did not feel invited, welcomed. I felt judged, felt outside. I could see the disapproval on their faces and knew our company was not anything that interested these people. Their opinions of us were more important to them than our souls. Friends, we cannot hate anyone into church. We cannot judge them into the altars. We can, however, shun them to the point of preferring whatever eternity awaits them beyond the arms of Jesus.

We’re getting it very wrong when it comes to the LGBTQIA community.

“That’s a lot of letters, Jen,” says Justification Jones.

And Jesus cares about every single person they represent. If a new letter is added tomorrow, I will learn what I can about it so that I may better embrace the person who identifies with it. If a single parent, a gay person, mentally ill person or an addict gives me the time of day, I want to embrace them with all the love I have. I want to be able to say, “Historically my people have not been too kind to your people. Please, sit by me and get to know Jesus.” If a person comes to me and says they used to be a man but now they’re a woman, I will say to them that I once was lost but now I’m found, welcome to our church.

At some point, someone somewhere took it upon themselves to categorize sin and create something Christianese calls “lifestyle sins”. I’ve got news for you – that’s not a thing. It has no Biblical basis. When we embrace the adulterer and tax cheat but turn our hearts against the gay community, it has nothing to do with “lifestyle sin” and everything to do with moral superiority and relativism. The moment we start to compare sins we have stepped outside of the word of God and into our own opinions. It is not and never will be our job to excuse or condemn. Justification Jones will point out that the Bible gives clear instructions about confronting sin within the church… within the church. What good is it to confront a nonbeliever with words he doesn’t yet believe? The Bible is not a billy club and the gospel is not to be earned. It is free, to all. Spread His love and let Him do the talking.

When the woman was caught in the act of adultery and thrown at the feet of Jesus, it was by judgmental men who rebuked her every step of the way. She was brought to Him not to save her, but to condemn her! You know from the account how well it worked out for those who brought her – they left in their own shame, having become aware of their own sins and how little the woman’s affected them. The adulterous woman, escorted in judgement, left in freedom; the would-be jury came in haughtiness and left in humbleness.

The Church is not our mirror – we are His. We are vastly underqualified to decide who should and should not come to church. The judgement throne is not our pew, friends. We need more of the people outside of the church, sitting in our church. We need to check our hearts and pray for theirs. We need to reflect Jesus and stop trying to be Him. Heaven isn’t hiring, it’s welcoming. The job we were offered wasn’t that of judge and jury, but of missionary and mouthpiece. There is not one single justification that anyone can muster which would excuse someone from being invited to church.

We need to reach His people and serve His people. We as the Church need better divorce care, better single parent support, better foster family respite care, better, qualified, professional counseling services (expect another blog on this in the near future). We need multicultural congregations and multieconomical outreach. We need more welcomes and fewer stares. We need Jesus to be famous. We need the world to hear His good news. We need to open our arms, shut our mouths, and just hug any person Christ would….

and that’s everyone.

Pause. Take a Breath. And Choose a Child’s Life Over Irritation.

I’m taking my own advice many times as I write this. It’d be entirely too easy to be accusatory, snide, and even downright rude when discussing food allergies and the classroom. I could quickly fall into my own emotional reactions and simply pen a piece that would only serve to anger the parents I’m trying to reach (though would definitely get some rousing applause from the parents who can relate). So I’m pausing. I’m breathing. I’m repeating.

Peanuts.

No other legume is so hotly discussed, so feared, almost legislated as the peanut. It is the stuff of lunches, candy bars, cookies, and dreams. It’s a cheap protein, an easy meal, a no-bake staple. Creamy, crunchy, mixed with chocolate… there really is no way to ruin peanut butter, AMIRIGHT?

It’s also absolutely deadly when combined with many, many children.

This is the time of year when millions of children are headed to school, many for the first time. Backpacks are being bought, teachers are being met, and, in some schools, policies are hitting parents smack in the face: no peanuts allowed.

Not every school is nut-free. Not every class is, either. But my plea is to the parents who find themselves surprised by this news: Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over this irritation.

I live in Texas, where the phrase “try and stop me!” was basically born. We’re a stubborn, proud, independent bunch, and we instantly bristle at any rule by nature. Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Yes, it’s frustrating. Believe me, the parents of the allergy kids are frustrated, too. They dream of pb&j lunches, peanut butter candies, and Cracker Jack. You’re not alone in scrambling to find equally easy and affordable lunches to send, it’s hard for sure. But pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

I know, I know, back in our day kids didn’t have all these allergies and rules. We ran the streets and ate whatever we wanted and classrooms were filled with treats of all kinds, with nary a sign warning you to turn back if you carried forbidden candy. Research is ongoing as to why food allergies are on the rise, but I promise you this: anaphylactic reactions are not made up and they aren’t for attention. Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Yes, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are the favorites of MANY kids. Yes, there are some kids with sensory or other differences who will only eat peanut butter sandwiches. Their parents will work out those situations with the administrators and find a way to keep everyone safe and fed. Not everyone likes turkey and not everyone can afford a lot of alternatives. I offer complete empathy, I know. But pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Oh yeah, I saw that meme, too. The one with sea turtles from Finding Nemo that have absolutely no relation to the statement comparing peanut butter sandwiches to vaccines. I’ve seen it a lot. It gets a lot of shares and likes, because again, people don’t like being told what to do and don’t like feeling as though their parenting choices are being taken away from them. But if you stop and think about it, parents don’t like having their children taken from them, and that’s exactly what an exposure to peanuts could cause for some. Death. Real death. Not a meme, not a grasp at straws to connect two hot-button topics and feebly justify risking an innocent child’s life. An actual process that begins with peanuts and ends with a dead child. I won’t even delve into the fallacy of the “argument”, but will point out that a family’s choice whether or not to vaccinate is not the same as fluke genetics and how parents are afforded no such freedom of choice when it comes to food allergies. Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

No, they can’t just send them all to a special school. Life-threatening allergies are recognized by the federal government as a disability, so accommodations must be made just as dyslexia or the need for a wheelchair would require. You can’t ship off all the kids who need hearing aides or insulin. You can’t demand that the kid with vision problems be moved behind your child so they can be closer to the front because they like it so much. There are needs, plans are made, and life goes on. Food allergies are no reason to ostracize the poor child who can’t control their reaction… or at least ostracize them any farther than already sitting them alone at a table in the farthest corner of the cafeteria. Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

You’re not wrong to be irritated. You’re not wrong to be frustrated. You’re not even wrong to not fully understand it. You are wrong, however, when you know the risk and choose to break the rules, anyway. You are not wrong for wanting to send peanut butter. You are wrong for knowing that sending peanut butter will result in the grave injury of a child. You are wrong when you weigh the life of the little girl your child sits next to and decide the Nutter Butters are worth her life. You are wrong when you see your child’s disgust at yet another ham sandwich and decide you’d rather them witness their friend stop breathing, instead.

Pause.

Take a breath.

And choose a child’s life over irritation.

No one is saying it’s easy to leave peanuts out of the classroom. No one is shrugging their shoulders and saying, “Oh well.” Your frustrations are heard, they are real. But so is death. And death will always be more important than frustration. Always. If you have any response other than agreement to that, then please find another school for your child to attend.

Maybe you’re a parent whose school is not nut-free, but your child’s class has a student with a life-threatening peanut allergy. What a disappointment, I know. Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Seatbelts are irritating. They rub your neck wrong and come across your chest at weird angles. Sometimes they lock up right when you’re reaching forward to change the radio station and you feel trapped! But they’re there for a reason – to keep you safe. It’s easy to forget how necessary they are when they’re rubbing and twisting and inexplicably pulling your hair, but should you ever find yourself saved by one, you look at the simple strap with gratitude and don’t mind the irritation.

Allergy rules are irritating. They make lunches and parties and snacks difficult. They change your plans and cause some uproar in routine. But they are there for a reason – to save a life. Did you know that peanut oil can remain on the skin for up to four hours, even after washing hands? That’s why you can’t sneak it into your kids’ lunch. Did you know that simply being in the same room as someone eating a Snickers can cause an anaphylactic reaction that leads to permanent brain damage or death? That’s why you can’t bring them for all but the allergic kiddo.

Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Go ahead, mourn peanut butter. You’re allowed to be disappointed. I’d ask that while you are examining your feelings towards Jif you explore what the other side may look like – how terrifying it must be for the parents of the child who is the cause of this policy. Man, they can’t even eat peanut butter at home. Not on the weekends. Not after school. Not at all. Those articles all over Facebook sure did make it sound like those EpiPens he carries are pretty darn expensive. I bet all the birthday parties they go to are scary. They must have spent a lot of time communicating with the school and coming up with an allergy action plan in the event of accidental exposure. They must be scared beyond belief knowing that their child’s life is in the hands of the parents packing the other kids’ lunches. Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

When my daughter was 4, yes, only 4, the parent of another child in her preschool class called her a “weak @$$ kid”. An adult man said this of a 4-year-old child who still needs straps on her flip flops to keep them on her feet. He’d just been told that the preschool class his daughter was about to start was in a nut-free room, and no peanut products would be allowed. Even after the immensely patient teacher explained that he would rather pack a different lunch than for his child to have to witness an anaphylactic reaction, he expressed his displeasure and frustration at the “weak @$$ kid”. My blood is boiling now just remembering it, and if I hadn’t been speaking so loudly I would never have heard my own words over the rush in my ears as I spoke up from behind him. No, she’s not weak – she’ll die. She did not ask for these food allergies, science cannot yet tell us what caused these food allergies, and she can actually die from these food allergies. I sometimes wonder if he still thinks about that moment, when he got caught name-calling a helpless preschooler because he didn’t like having to pack a different lunch. I wonder if he realized the weight his irritation carried when it came to an innocent child’s life and death.

Pause.

Take a breath.

And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Please accept my apology, I do recognize and sympathize that not bringing peanuts to school is difficult. I say that without an ounce of sarcasm, it really is tough. I am sorry for the inconvenience these policies cause, truly. But I will not ever – and I suspect you would say the same – ever apologize for keeping my child safe. If you find yourself at the end of this very long post and still have thoughts forming that begin with, “But…”, then please talk with your school administrators about how you can be either transferred to another classroom or another school without peanut policies. Seriously, it’s the only safe alternative. And if you can know that your rebellion could cause the death of a child and still feel okay with sneaking a Reese’s into your child’s bag, then I’ll be happy to help you fill out the transfer paperwork.

Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

The Drain of Discernment

Some people call us empaths, intuitives. Biblically, we are said to have the gift of discernment. Still others chalk it up to wisdom. Whatever you call it, there exists in some people the innate, intangible ability to discern, to sense and perceive truth, motivations, emotions, and even sometimes the paths of other people. Not psychic abilities, not a parlor trick, but a genuine, God-given ability to recognize and empathize.

Before I knew what it was, I had this gift of discernment. As a child I knew immediately who I did and did not like, who I trusted, who was putting on a show. I felt others’ sadness deeply and mourned with them long after parting ways. I sensed their anxiety and insecurities. I bristled at their manipulations. I felt an intense connection with animals and more often than not spent birthday parties talking with my friends’ parents. I didn’t always like every one of my parents’ friends, and people who wore masks did not appreciate that I could see through them. In all, it made for a very, very cynical kid.

As an adult who now recognizes and trusts in this gift, I’m exhausted.

I’m almost the very definition of an extrovert. I absolutely love being around people, draw my energy from crowds. Yet I crave alone time. I thought it was because I’m a stay at home mom and it’s really freaking hard. I thought I was one of those ambiverts or an outgoing introvert. I could not figure out how I’m both energized and drained by human interaction to the point of irritability, fatigue, even sadness. Then I realized it – I’m tired because it literally does drain me. To be constantly searching others for their emotions, their motivations, to be hyper aware of subtleties and sideways glances. I’m never just around people, I feel people.

Sensing others’ emotions and manipulations can really make someone skeptical, disillusioned, even pessimistic. That’s a hard load to carry, and often it’s carried alone. I’ve been accused of being judgemental, harsh, bitter. I’m not perfect, and I definitely wander down those paths sometimes, but when you voice your doubts about someone you tend to look like a jerk. When you don’t fall for shows it’s impossible to wear rose-colored glasses. I’ve felt so strongly before that certain people were not who they presented themselves to be that I’ve doubted myself. I’ve examined my motives, reasons. Was I jealous in any way? Had they slighted me? Do they wear Crocs regularly? I couldn’t put my finger on my uneasiness, especially in comparison to seemingly everyone else’s adoration. Once I even approached a person and apologized to them for the feelings I had that prevented me from developing a relationship with them. And you know what? Every single time my gut was right. Even the person I tried so hard to like, the one I embarrassed myself by approaching and apologizing to.  Every time, every one, they showed themselves to be toxic, harmful people. These alarms going off inside, the gut feeling, the voice of God, they were all discernment, and though I often stood alone in my feelings, I stood in truth. Questioning someone’s motives when you’re uneasy around them doesn’t make you any more judgemental than locking your front door does. But it does make you look like a pretty harsh person to others who don’t have the same sirens blaring inside.

So it gets lonely. It gets sad and hard to be the one who naturally mistrusts some people.

It’s also really sad and hard to empathize.

I love people. Genuinely love people. I want the best for them. I love to help, love to encourage, love to hug. Don’t get me wrong, I like my space and alone time and get really flippin’ frustrated in parking lots (where the worst of mankind always manifests), but I love people. I like talking with them, laughing with them. I cannot go anywhere in public without being drawn into conversation with a stranger. I earned my degree in counseling because I feel so called to help and get the most incredible rush from being able to do so. I can’t always offer my time, I can rarely offer money, but I can offer my empathy… and that mess is draining.

What a privilege to share in life’s greatest emotions with others, but what a struggle to also feel them. I would never wish empathy away, but I do wish for a nap after a particularly heavy conversation. I do wish I could watch movies about injustice or grief and not feel such overwhelming guilt. The feelings are deep. They don’t compare to what someone is going through, obviously, and I would never tell someone I knew exactly how they felt, but what I do feel is intense. Trust that if you have shared your struggles with me, I am feeling a tug for you all day. When I tell you I’ve been thinking about you or praying for you, it’s genuine. Taking on others’ pain, sadness, even joy means taking on more emotions than you yourself would normally feel in a day. You feel enough for one person and then some. I cry way more than I’d like to admit, and sometimes just from how overwhelming all the emotions are. It pulls from you, in ways that cannot be measured. Attempting to explain this fatigue can get you a lot of eye rolls and heavy sighs. It’s tough to explain just how much it pulls from you to care so deeply, but oh, what a wonderful gift it still is. While our hearts run the risk of hardening towards others because of mistrust, they remain tender with this concern we experience.

Ah, our hearts. Such tricky things. We straddle the line between doubt and empathy, using our energy to constantly evaluate those around us – though such feelings aren’t really quantifiable. We’re not ranking, we’re not judging, we’re feeling. And those feelings guide us to a position of silent power that can all too easily be used to manipulate. Our own hearts have to be examined regularly. We feel things others don’t, we know things others don’t, so we sit with this information and are faced with the question of what to do about it. Do we warn others? Do we approach them? Do we just avoid this shifty-feeling person? Or do we use these feelings, this “knowledge” to our advantage? Too many use the ability to read others for their own gain. They sense the relationships of the people around them and play them off one another. They pick up on the egos and the insecurities and hold onto them like poker cards. They lie with incredible ease and skill, knowing just what to say and how to say it. Because of the connection to others’ emotions, they can truly mean the untruths they tell, convince the trusting others. We must keep watch over our own hearts, that whole “with great power comes great responsibility” thing.

I haven’t researched it and I haven’t asked others who I know observe with discernment and empathy, but I have a theory about us: we’re beacons.

Those people I speak with when out running errands, they approach me. Every time. I’ve tried listening to my iPod, I’ve tried taking kids with me, I’ve tried Resting Jerk Face, and still I am approached by any and all kinds of people, chomping at the bit to share their stories and struggles with me. I’ve asked for years, how do they know? What about me draws them to me? Why, after a shift of seeing hundreds of people come through their line, did this cashier choose me to share her broken heart with?

It’s the empathy.

Because we all feel. We all experience emotions. And something about those who can feel the emotions around them calls out to those who are too overwhelmed to feel them alone. I remain convinced of my Father’s love by this, that He has placed people around us who are equipped to share the heavy load. These gifts we have were placed with purpose and intent. Some sing, some write, some do math, some speak, some dance, some paint, some teach, and some feel. It is a gift not just for ourselves, but the people around us. It can serve to both protect and heal, warn and serve. The people who need us will find us, and the people who don’t convince us will remain guarded. We can’t quantify this gift, we can barely prove it, yet almost everyone around us can recognize it enough to react to it.

So we find ourselves drained, emotions and doubt and anxiety and conviction having pulled so much from us. We can feel like we’ve lost ourselves, given away so much of ourselves or taken on so much of others. After 10 hours of sleep emotional exhaustion can still remain. The inability to turn off the radar, the intuition, to remain in a state of vigilance, it creates a state of emotional tenseness, always taut, always waiting, always feeling. We’re watchdogs. It can feel like more is taken from us than we freely give. We don’t often have the luxury of optimism to energize us, because this very surreal gift keeps us firmly planted in realism. And realism tells us we’ll be tired again tomorrow. We must seek out opportunities to be alone, to process these emotions, to be granted reprieve from feeling everyone in the room, from being sought out and so heavily relied upon. We must give ourselves rest, find others who pour in as much as others siphon. We must recognize the toll discernment takes on us and actively protect ourselves from becoming emotional roadkill. As you acknowledge this gift you have, acknowledge the impact it has on you. You know, since with great power comes great responsibility. Go forth, go feel, go rest.

 

Where Did My Fun Go?

Last week I had a quick conversation with friends, a few of them I’ve known for years. We were joking about this, laughing about that, when one of them said, “I remember the exact time I realized you were funny.” He described a time when I was, indeed, very funny, because let’s face it, I can be a hoot. We laughed at the memory of it, I gave him a hard time about how he’d known me for two years (!!!!!) before that occasion when he finally noticed that my jokes were good, and we went on our merry way, me with that I-just-spent-time-with-adults glow.

Later that night, it hit me.

He’d known me two years before he found out I was funny. Granted, I hadn’t spent every day of two years with this friend, but surely I’d made some kind of wise crack, right? It’s kind of my thing, after all. Had my jokes been bad? Did my timing miss a step? Did I stumble into some bad lighting? (Clueless reference.) No, I realized, that wasn’t it. My humor had been fine, it was me who wasn’t. Because every time I’d been around that friend, every encounter we’d had over those two years, I’d had my kids with me. He hadn’t seen me be funny because he’d seen me being a mom.

He hadn’t seen me, he’d seen the overtired, hypervigilant, herding, correcting, feeding, deep-sighing version of me.

Every encounter I’d had with this friend had not been me at my best, or my most comfortable. I hadn’t felt free to joke because I’d been bound by fatigue, schedule, mentally keeping track of how many packages of fruit snacks I’d already let the kids have. I wasn’t fun, I was frazzled.

So when did I lose my fun?

Did it get lost underneath the pile of unmatched socks?

Did it stay in bed when I had to get up so many times in the night?

Did I lose it when all the articles popping up made me aware of dry drowning and how I had to observe my kids for every second of an entire week after they submerged their heads in water?

Did the fun get lost between the lines of ingredients I read, both fearful of the allergens that could harm my children and trying to make sense of the latest ones I’m supposed to avoid?

Maybe I lost my fun when defending parenting choices became a part-time job for us all, when it suddenly took as much time to stand up for ourselves as mothers as it did to research alternative methods to what we’d been doing, since that latest article just detailed why we’ve been doing it so horribly wrong.

Did it feel left out between doctor appointments, cancelled date nights, trips to the schools, refereeing siblings, scrubbing stains out of brand-new clothes, price-matching brand-new shoes, or cleaning more pee than any 3 small humans should ever be able to produce?

*whispers* Was it delicate and I accidentally washed it with the towels?!

I wonder if it’s stuck between the pages of one of those books I started but haven’t been able to finish.

Maybe it’s in the backpack I’m pretending isn’t stuffed into the closet, still full of locker contents from the end of last school year.

I hope I find it when I’m purging for the next garage sale.

My fun could very well be shivering in the back of the fridge, either trapped in a dish of leftovers or wedged between the long-expired ingredients I bought to try a Pinterest recipe.

Is it an early bird and I’ve just missed it? Is it away and I haven’t been able to visit? Is it in the dust, the crumbs, the dish water, the lint trap, the mulch, the soot, the empty photo albums I’ve yet to fill? Could it be in my instrument I haven’t played in forever? Could it be in the gym clothes I haven’t seen in too long?

I’m not sure where it went, I don’t know how to find it. But I won’t stop looking now that I know that it’s gone.

Because as much as I wish my friend had known my humor those two years, I wish my kids had seen it more.

I’m going to chance that it’s in the bucket of water balloons I’m about to unleash. Or maybe in the fort we’re going to build. Perhaps I’ll find it in the extra laughs I’ll make time for after bedtime has passed. Maybe it will show up if I don’t rush dinner. I hope it comes back if I watch that movie with the kids. I’m even willing to roll the dice on it being lost somewhere in Minecraft. It’s not on my schedule, so I’ll stop looking there. It’s not on Facebook, or Instagram, or even on Pinterest. It could be in that mess I haven’t wanted to make, the project I haven’t made time for. It might be in the dirt, in the mud, in all the things I’ve found imperfect. It’s not in my laundry or I would have found it by now, so maybe it’s in a place I haven’t been in too long – or a place I’ve yet to go.

Wherever my fun went, I’m determined to find it. My kids deserve more, I deserve more, and dag nabbit, I’ve got some great jokes to share.

 

 

Mourning Normal

Yes, yes, I know – “Normal is just a setting on the washing machine.” There’s almost a resistance to the word “normal”, a visual bristling that takes place at the mention of it, especially when using “normal” as a measuring stick or comparison tool. “Normal” isn’t bad, it isn’t better, but it is, statistically, a thing. It’s real. It’s the middle of the bell curve, the average, the typical. It’s what’s to be expected, what’s been planned for. It’s the experience of most, and surprisingly the disdain of many.

It’s also a gift, as I’ve written before.

We grieve a lot of things in our lives – jobs, relationships, deaths, disappointments. Stories that ended before we were ready and stories that continue on in ways we didn’t expect. This is where I find myself today, mourning. Grieving the death not of a loved one, but of a future, of expectations. Coming face-t0-face with the very real differences between what I expected to be “normal” and what is my “actual”.

For some it may be life after divorce. For others it may be life after an accident or illness. Continuing on after the loss of someone incredibly close. Hearing, “It’s a boy!” instead of planning for pink. Being forced to envision your future in an entirely new and different way after the loss of your dream job, or never having landed the position at all. The circumstances are all different, but the feelings remain similar – you had a plan, it changed, and now you’re left not only reeling, scrambling, planning for the new future, but also feeling the aching hole left behind by your original future, the one you’d looked forward to, prepared for. Your “normal” is suddenly gone, and your present is something you never intended or considered. Your present is now, by definition, “abnormal”, at least from what you’d been anticipating.

For me, I’m mourning a “normal” childhood for my son.

We can call it “neurotypical”. We can call it “average”. We can reference the majority of the population and refer to him as an outlier, an anomaly, an exception. What we can’t call him is “normal”, though the life I’d envisioned for him was.

I started homeschooling him a few months ago for a few reasons, and it has been fantastic. We’ve had a blast, I’ve noticed so much relief in him, and he’s absolutely loving it – it’s been a good thing. However, last week a parent from his former class shared a slideshow of moments from the school year… and I lost it. Full on, snotty, ugly, moaning, sobbing cries. Seeing the smiles, the crafts, the parties, the memories – they caused me actual pain. I saw this typical childhood in a typical school and felt the most intense sadness. They were so happy. They were doing what so many other kids their age did. In my eyes, they were easy and normal. Was I romanticizing their school experience, as a friend pointed out to me? Absolutely. Were those experiences things my son was even interested in? No way. Would him being present for those things make him happy? A booming, echoing NO. But I was suddenly hit with such intense grief over the fact that normal hadn’t worked out. It didn’t negate how much homeschooling is working for us. It didn’t lessen my love or amazement at who he is. It was grieving for what ought to have been. Recognizing that my current path had strayed from my intended one, and while lovely, I hadn’t yet let go of my original travel plan. Something was over, and no matter how poor of a fit it was, it brought me grief to know that it had ended, that is was no longer an option.

It’s popped up before, this grief, and I expect it will pop up again. And the thing about it is, it’s okay. It’s okay to grieve. It’s healthy to mourn. Mourning is not regret. Letting go of what might have been is not taking your current reality for granted. Being sad something didn’t work out, feeling the pain of that end is not wishing your present, wasn’t. You can be both sad at what is gone and appreciative of what you have at the same time. The tears that fell over knowing I wouldn’t see my son smiling in those photos did not erase the photos I have of him smiling with me. The tears just fell, and it was okay.

Grieving normal requires learning to think in new ways, retraining your reactions. Not many people start out their journey hoping they’ll abandon their destination and end up somewhere else entirely. The habitual way you think and react and plan has been practiced for a very long time, and now it doesn’t fit with your life. You may mourn normal every time you have to make a hard decision – at the very least you’ll be reminded of it. I once heard a beautiful analogy relating to the parents of special needs children that I feel fits so well to many, many more situations:

Imagine you’re planning to move to Paris. You pack your chicest clothing, research the museums, the language, the culture, the food, the rues. You tell everyone where you’re going and you imagine your exciting life once you get there. Only upon exiting the plane, you find that you’ve somehow landed in Holland. Huh?! Holland is not Paris. You’re shocked. You’re sad. You’re completely unprepared for Holland. You don’t know the language. You don’t know the customs. You know nothing about the food, the maps, the people. Your clothes are wrong, your plans can’t happen, yet here you are. You are now in Holland, for better or worse. You long for Paris, you may even declare intense hatred for Holland simply because it isn’t Paris. But slowly, slowly, you being to learn about your new home. You absorb the culture, begin to assimilate. Holland doesn’t have the Eiffel Tower, but it does have windmills, and tulips, and it’s very peaceful there. Your friends come to visit from Paris and don’t understand it, but you go to visit them and find that Paris is loud, crowded, and a little smelly. You grow to love Holland, despite it never having been on your radar, and you appreciate your new life for what it is, find peace where you are, and are happy. Holland is never going to be Paris, but that’s okay.

Here is something I must stress, whatever normal you are mourning – GRIEF IS NOT GUILT. Feeling sad about the sudden change in your future does mean you are responsible for it, it does not mean you caused it, it does not mean you can change it. No matter how strong your feelings are, they cannot reverse anything. Do not trick yourself into feeling guilt over your situation or guilt for your grief. Feel your feelings. Identify your feelings. Accept them, work through them. You can change the way you think, but you must embrace how you feel in order to move forward. Assigning yourself guilt is not a punishment for experiencing grief.

Find someone you can talk with about your feelings. It may take a few tries and you may only find one person, but keep trying. People will say stupid things. I’ve written before about how we often attempt to measure the pain of others – it will happen. You will hear dismissive comments about the things you DO have that you SHOULD be grateful for. Don’t allow them to shame you into guilt. Don’t allow any statements that begin with “At least…” to bury your feelings. You know that being sad over what isn’t to come does not mean you are not grateful for what is. The thing about winding up in an unknown foreign territory, metaphorical or otherwise, is that it is terrifying. Sometimes you have no idea what to expect. Sometimes you DO know, and that’s even scarier. Change is hard, unexpected change is harder. But finding someone who can listen will at least mean you aren’t alone.

Mourning the end of your marriage doesn’t mean you want your ex back. Grieving the diagnosis your child received doesn’t mean you love them any less. Crying because you got a boy doesn’t mean you wish he’d been a girl. Remembering life before kids isn’t overlooking or disregarding the miracles that they are.  Missing your old home doesn’t mean you wish you hadn’t moved. It’s grief, it’s an end, it’s saying goodbye to what you thought your future would be as you learn what your new present is. It’s part of the process of letting go of what was “supposed to be”, what was your “normal”, and finding yourself in uncharted territory. Mourn that normal. Multiple times. And while your tears are still wet on your cheek, tell someone you trust how you’re feeling.

Whenever I feel inspired to write a post here, I typically write down some notes in a journal I keep. I think about it for a long time, I pray, I research when necessary. I have dozens of posts just waiting to be written, with rough ideas and random thoughts jotted down. But this post was different. I kept trying to make the time to sit and pray about it, to ask for wisdom. I was waiting for a time when I felt absolutely joyous about the current state of abnormal we’re in, so that I could offer some hope from the other side perhaps, so I could have a cute little sign-off, something to share that would inspire, lift, encourage. But it never came. Every day since that slideshow has been hard. Tomorrow will probably be hard, too. I began to feel very discouraged at it all. Why wasn’t it getting better? Why wasn’t I feeling more hopeful? Was I the world’s biggest hypocrite for wanting to talk about mourning normal and feeling this way? It hit me today – I was waiting for normal to return. I was waiting for this state of abnormal to stop being so abnormal so that I could write about it. I wanted it to feel normal while I discussed how it wasn’t. And so I grieve again, because mourning normal isn’t a period you go through, it’s a change in your lifestyle. It’s not a season, it’s a shift. Despite all my words, I still wanted normal to come back, and it just isn’t going to. And that’s sad. And that’s okay. I know over time this abnormal will become my new normal. I know over time I will feel that punch in the gut become softer and softer, with fewer and fewer blows. I know that we have made the right decision. But today, right now, in the middle of the sadness and fatigue and tears and doubts, I am sad. Not regretful, not ungrateful, I am in mourning.

Welcome to Holland.

 

 

My Child Didn’t Take a Standardized Test Yesterday So Now He’s Basically Doomed

Across my great state yesterday, 4th and 5th graders gathered into hushed classrooms with bellies full of protein-packed breakfasts and sharpened pencils at the ready. Children in younger grades had their chairs removed from their desks so that the scraping sounds wouldn’t distract students rooms away, and parents were barred from visiting the campus: it was the first day of standardized testing in Texas.

My 10-year-old woke after a good night’s sleep, ate a big breakfast, and settled in with the book of his choosing. He played with his siblings, created with Legos, and even ASKED for veggies with his lunch. He had a great day… but was not at school. I opted him out of the test.

Being a 4th grader, he’s an old pro at the STAAR, the standardized test for Texas students. He’s taken the math and reading tests before (and totally crushed them, but that’s just the mom in me needing to brag on him). He wasn’t worried about the tests and he knew they didn’t define him as a student. He was proud of both his regular grades and his previous scores and shrugged off the idea that standardized testing was stressful.

Until it became stressful.

At the beginning of the school year his teacher bragged on his writing (insert proud mom puffing her chest out here). She was very excited by his ability, his creativity – he was a good writer. We began getting examples of what the STAAR test expected in a composition, and it was clear that my boy was doing well and would score high. He could use some tweaking to get the highest possible score, but that’s what school – and the next few months – were for, helping him grow as a writer and hone his skills.

To save you the novel it would require to share all the details, it became a nightmare right after winter break. The students – 9- and 10-year-olds – were writing a new paper every day to prepare for the writing portion of the standardized test. A paper a day. Each time with a new prompt that required new creativity yet had to follow the same formula. If a child didn’t finish they were made to miss recess to keep working on their paper. The paper that was just practice. If they still didn’t finish they would have to take it home and finish it, because a new prompt awaited the next day. It started taking longer and longer for him to finish. He’d come home exhausted, in tears, stressed over not finishing a paper that was just practice, a paper that’d be thrown out in the morning so he could start all over again with another. Despite our encouragement and praises – from his parents and teachers – his self esteem took a huge hit. He felt like a terrible student that he couldn’t finish quickly. He felt like he had no ideas because it took him so long to come up with yet ANOTHER creative paper. He allowed his worth to be dictated by this repetitive practicing and completely ignored the A’s he made in all of his regular schoolwork. He has a tic disorder that only appears when he’s stressed or ill, and his face was so overtaken by tics that he struggled to make it through a sentence at times. My boy was broken. His writing suffered. Where he’d started the year bringing home papers with high grades and excellent imagery, he began handing over papers that were not finished, that were pieced together according to a formula, that had no vision, and that weren’t even a shadow of what he’d been capable of before. He handed these to me with his head down, because he knew it, too. My 10-year-old was burned out. In the 4th grade. He was exhausted, spent, suffering. I felt like a failure as a mother for having allowed it to happen, for having bought into the “Suck it up, it’s just a test” line. Not all kids respond this way, but mine did, and I had to remind myself that I am his parent, not the school district, and not the businesspeople making millions off of the test.

So I opted him out.

We spent the day together like rebels – one homeschooled kid, one kid opted out of standardized testing, and one too young to be a part of any of it. We got stares. We got smiles. And we got a lot of questions. When it became clear just how very many parents were not aware that they could opt their children out of standardized testing, I took it upon myself to post on Facebook about it. The only city in Texas that has a formal opt-out policy also has the highest percentage of families who opt out, so I decided to get the word out, as it seems the more empowered parents are the more action they take. I don’t judge those who sent their kids to school, I don’t think all kids are being damaged by the process, I just wanted to make sure parents knew they had a choice.

And, apparently, I wanted to make sure my son never succeeded in life.

There were a few comments – and some surprising “likes” on those comments – that expressed concern over his college career and his character as an adult. Yes, my 10-year-old. Who is in 4th grade. Whether those comments came from a place of well-meaning, judgement, or just being wholly ignorant, I would like to address the sentiment and make a few things clear.

He is 10. He’ll only be 10 for 6 more months, and then he’ll be 11. He does not need to be prepared for college right now. Because he’s 10. He may not even choose to go to college. But whenever that decision comes, it’s the better part of a decade away.

Not taking a standardized test does not teach a child not to take tests. They take tests all year long. They have homework and projects and book reports and quizzes, too. They must complete those and show mastery of the content. Not taking this one standardized test didn’t teach him that it’s okay to wimp out on something that’s too hard and it didn’t create a habit of avoiding tests. It was a standardized test that, at his current grade level, does not affect his grades. He’ll continue to take tests over the material he is presented throughout his school career despite having missed this one.

The idea that a single test is an indicator of future character is absurd. My job as his parent goes a lot deeper and longer than a single test. Me standing up for him when something gets to be too much does not teach him he doesn’t have to deal with hard things – it teaches him that his parents support him. It teaches him that it’s okay to say “no” to something that isn’t good for you. It teaches him that sometimes when everyone else is doing something, that doesn’t mean you should, too. It teaches him that he can come to us when he’s faced with another hard issue, and it teaches him that he can trust us to help him through it. Not taking one test out of hundreds will not make him a flake, it will not relegate him to a lifetime of looking to mommy to fix his problems, and it does not render him powerless against difficulty. Character is an ongoing education in our home, one that gets a lot more time and attention than a single standardized test.

It’s “just a test” to you, but your experience only counts with one person – you. There really are children with anxiety disorders. There really are children with the inability to write what their brains tell them. There really are kids who can’t sit still for 4 hours. There really are kids who don’t understand the instructions. There really are kids who can’t see the instructions. There really are kids whose stomachs growl with hunger. There really are kids who have failed to meet the requirements multiple times and are terrified they’ll be held back a grade. There are countless children – identified and otherwise – who have an entirely different experience when it comes to standardized testing, who approach the packet with hurdles already placed before them. Your great fortune in overcoming nerves or never knowing them at all does not dismiss their very real experiences.

This is not 1997. The tests aren’t what they were when I took them. They’ve gotten harder, are riddled with grammatical and grading issues, and come with millions of unseen strings that tie teachers’ jobs and salaries to students’ performance… on ONE test. The stakes are higher, the tests are harder, the prep is more intense, and it is comparing apples to dragonfruit when we try to compare our own standardized testing experiences to those of children today.

Nobody really asked you. That was harsh, wasn’t it? Sorry about that, but it’s true. At the end of the day, no parent needs the permission of another or the blessing of your opinion to decide if they want to opt their child out of a test. Really. You don’t have to like it – they didn’t ask you to. You don’t have to agree with it – you’re welcome to send your kids with their number two pencils to take any test you wish. You’re more than free to feel passionately – and I pray you DO! But your passions are not my guide, and I’ll raise my child how I see fit, thankyouverymuch.

Standardized testing has nothing to do with college. Nothing. Colleges don’t request STAAR scores. To my knowledge there are no scholarships offered based on STAAR scores (especially to 4th graders). Are there tests in college? Sure. There are also tests in elementary, middle, and high school, all covering the material that was taught… like college. In fact, those tests are much more like the ones college students will face than a STAAR test. Valedictorians aren’t chosen from STAAR scores, standardized test scores don’t get you extra cords at graduation, and I really hope there are no fraternities that base membership on a 4th grade writing test. I don’t even think Jostens has a STAAR logo you can put on your senior ring…

The same people who are saying it’s only a test are the ones making dark predictions about the weight of the test. If it’s only a test, then what’s the big deal about missing it? If it’s only a test, it can’t possibly determine what type of adult he’ll be, right? If it’s only a test, then there’s no way his college career will be completely derailed by it, right? If it’s only a test, then it’s nowhere near as important as my SON, and I choose him every time. And if you think that “just a test” dictates the entire academic future of a child, then what is the purpose of school? It can’t be something that’s both easily shrugged off and fatefully guiding us at the same time.

At the end of this very long post, he’s still only 10. He loves his Rubik’s cubes, drawing on graph paper, playing board games, wrestling with his brother, laughing at movies. He’s growing taller by the day and thinks the little blonde hairs on his legs are very manly. He snuggles me on the couch, his table manners are questionable, and farts are the funniest thing in the world to him (though I’m pretty sure that’s not age-specific). He’s 10. He’s still a boy. There is no need to prepare him for adulthood, for college, right now. There is no need to push him beyond where is healthy for him to go. There IS a need to stand up for him and protect him from what’s not okay, from what’s harmful to him. He has the rest of his life to be an adult, I don’t need to push him towards it when he’s just barely reached double digits. Not that standardized testing has anything to do with being a functional adult, only that there is no need to push him towards something that will happen eventually, anyway. Missing this one test does not disqualify him from future success or doom him to a lifetime of watching old 90’s FOX reruns in the dark while eating potted meat from the can. He’s 10. We live in a developed society that allows him to be 10 and not worry about tilling fields or getting the black lung down in the coal mines. He’s not being prepared for adulthood, he’s being allowed a childhood.

At the end of the day, he went to bed. He wasn’t fearful about his future, I didn’t get any recruiters calling to cancel their visits, and knowledge didn’t tumble out of his head. He didn’t take a test. A very expensive stack of paper sits in a box, leftover because he wasn’t there to break the seal on it. The world will keep spinning, he will keep learning, and everything will be okay. I don’t regret our decision – in fact, I feel more sure of it than ever. We will face tomorrow – and any other tests, academic or otherwise – how we faced today: together.

How to Treat Fat People

Airplanes, buses, trains, movie theaters – there are endless places where you may find yourself seated next to a fat person. I’ve talked about it time and again here – I’m a big woman. Plus-sized. Curvy. Overweight. I’m fat. We as a nation tend to shy away from using the word “fat” when we’re describing someone we love. We flinch at it, it makes us uncomfortable, we dismiss the word and tell them that of course they’re not fat. Just big. Or plus-sized. Or curvy. “Fat” carries with it a negative connotation, it’s used in comments sections to put people down, dismiss them, describe them, always in a bad way. It’s just something on a person’s body, literally everyone’s body, just in different amounts. Like freckles or hairs. But because weight is hard to hide and obesity is rising, I feel compelled, as a fat person, to offer the world this in-depth guide from the inside on how to treat someone like myself, a fat person.

Step 1: Treat them like you would any other human being.

That’s pretty much it. Taking up more space does not mean they’re worth less.

While I get the occasional creepy Facebook message from guys who fetishize big women, I also get to see the thousands of comments every day all over social media left by people who are disgusted by fat people. Their actual words, they’re disgusted. Why? Because a human being dares to look differently than they’d prefer. Do you want to date or marry every person you’re kind to on a daily basis? The person you held the door for, are you harboring a deeply-rooted love for them? Did you profess your feelings to the person you smiled at across from you at the restaurant? Have you entered into long-term relationships with every stranger you’ve encountered without turning your nose up in disgust? No? Then why do people have to make themselves attractive for you to be nice to them? Why must someone conform to your physical ideals to not be reviled?

They don’t.

If you think your lower numbers on the scale or higher numbers in the gym make you a better person – or worse, assign you more worth – then the problem isn’t my weight, it’s your heart.

“Ah, Jen, I’m glad you brought up the heart. Obesity is so bad for you – ”

I’m gonna stop you right there. This is not a post to celebrate or encourage obesity. This is not a post where I justify my weight. Search it line by line, and you will find no excuses, justifications, or fact-ignoring celebrations. This is purely and entirely about treating people with kindness. If you react with anything that resembles a, “yeah, but…”, then you don’t get the point and should start back up at the top. Repeat as many times as necessary.

But since we’re on the topic, I’ll let you in on a little secret, something we keep hidden deep in the bowels of Lane Bryant – fat people do not have to justify their choices to you. Ever. Period. Not caloric intake. Not activity levels. Nothing. Overweight people are not dumb. They are not ignorant to the medical research on obesity any more than they are to your stares and snickers. (Yes, the snickers pun was intentional.) Every single time a fat person visits a doctor, for literally any ailment, they must first spend at least 20 minutes going around and around with their doctor over their weight. Truly. Got a headache? Well if you’re fat, good luck getting your doctor to look past your waistband. There is no greater population of people that must justify their right to be heard by a doctor. So we get it, we’ve heard it, extra weight is hard on your body. No one person in an internet comments section is the messiah of skinny news, you will not bring to them the sudden realization through your “concern” that losing weight would be healthier. Suggesting diets is not helpful. Asking an obese person if they’ve tried exercise is a lot like asking a person struggling with infertility if they’ve tried conceiving. Messaging someone about a miracle product you’re selling is just plain rude and bad internet etiquette. And heck, if you’re really so concerned about someone dying sooner, then be NICE to them with the little time they apparently have left. Shaming anyone for something on their body isn’t just cruel, it shows an incredible lack of intelligence. Really, the most obvious thing about me is the only thing you could think to talk about? Teach your kids to see the person and not the size, to describe people as, “That man in the blue shirt,” instead of “that big fat guy over there.”  They’ll be better friends – and writers – for it. While we’re on the topic, please don’t teach your children that eating too much will cause them to get fat. That’s really not the whole truth. Genetics, conditions, hormones, medications, injuries, depression, and yes, food choices, can all play a part in the amount of jiggle in someone’s wiggle. Diet and exercise are not secrets that have been kept from fat people. Most of the fat people I know diet and exercise more than the average-sized people in my life. Keep your regiments to yourself and don’t assume that just because a person looks a certain way that they aren’t working on it – or even that they don’t want to look like that.

J.K. Rowling said once, “Is fat really the worst thing a human being can be? Is fat worse than vindictive, jealous, shallow, vain, boring, evil, or cruel? Not to me.”

While there is more of me, there’s also more to me. I have two degrees, and graduated with a 4.0 GPA. I have three kids. I can quote a mind-boggling number of movies and every episode of Friends. My husband is my best friend. I get really excited really easily. I used to want to be a professional whistler. I love to laugh, write, create. I love costume jewelry and leopard print. I can sing the 50 states song in about 40 seconds. I’m terrified of aquatic plants. I am certified to SCUBA dive down to 60 feet in open water, and want to someday swim with sharks. I play the trumpet. In high school I sang with the men’s choir at UIL competition – and the women’s. I’m an insomniac, a history buff, true-crime fanatic, and a friend. I’m not the most interesting person in the world, but the outside of me does not even come close to how much more there is of me on the inside.

Do I have thyroid problems? Hormonal imbalances? Injuries, medications, genetics, or snacking habits that have led me to become overweight? I don’t have to tell. I don’t have to justify my size. For a long time I have, and out of insecurity I sometimes still will, but really, no one, from the petite to the pudgy, has to justify their size to you. To anyone. No one’s meals, no one’s choices need your approval. My weight does not define me, but your words do clearly advertise who you are. No one, not the most morbidly obese person in the stretchiest of pants with the biggest of plates, deserves to be treated with any less respect. You don’t have to marry them, you don’t have to date them, you don’t have to befriend them, but you are not entitled, ever, to elevate yourself over them with your disgust.

Treat everyone kindly. That’s really it.

Motherhood as Worship

“And whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the Father.” Colossians 3:17, NLT

“We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.” – Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a mom. You don’t have to have read my previous mommin’ blogs to know that it. is. HARD. Really hard. Admitting that it’s hard doesn’t take away from the greatness and the privilege of it, and being blessed to be mothers doesn’t make it awesome all the time. There’s no way around it and there’s no shame in admitting it: being a mother is just really freaking hard sometimes.

Days, weeks go by without me getting any time at all to myself. I start to groan when the kids ask me to play with them. I begin to even grow resentful towards all the things I have to do for them, things they almost certainly won’t appreciate or remember. I scroll through Instagram and Pinterest and dream of all the things I can’t do “because of” my kids. I grow weary. I grow annoyed. I count down the days until school and the hours until pickup. I want a break. And to be honest, there’s really nothing wrong with needing a break. Breaks are healthy, refreshing, self-care necessities. But momming for the breaks is as defeating as working for the weekend – you view  your situation as an obstacle instead of an opportunity. And, I’ll admit, I sometimes feel like the kids’ needs are hurdles. I sometimes view motherhood as an inconvenience, something that holds me back from what I’d rather be doing (probably napping), as opposed to what it really is: worship.

Each of us has a purpose. We have gifts, abilities, callings. We are uniquely formed to fulfill unique destinies on this earth, and each step we take within God’s will is an act of worship. By following the plan He has for our life, we are praising Him, glorifying Him. If God has made you a mother – be it through biology, adoption, fostering, or a caring heart – you are part of His plan, both for yourself and your child. Being in His will, then, we can do what He has called us to do with a heart of worship, as an act of worship. Every shoe we tie, every bad dream we snuggle away, every lunch we pack or pay for is an act of worshipping our God because we are doing what He intended us to do as mothers.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying all women are called to be mothers, and I’m not saying mothers are called or capable only to parent. We are magnificently created women with multiple gifts and callings, we can do so very much, each act with a heart of worship. Whatever we do as we walk in God’s plan, we can approach just as we would worship – “Here I am, Father – broken, imperfect, tired. I don’t know it all and I doubt myself, but I know You are good and have placed me here. Do what You will and what You can with whatever is left of me.”

Worship is sometimes hard for me, at least fully. I can sing the songs and clap the hands and do a mean church sway, but it’s difficult at times to completely turn off my brain and praise my Savior. I’m tired. I’m distracted. I don’t always feel well. I notice a missed note. I can think of 100 other things I could be doing and 100 other things that await me when I get home. It doesn’t lessen my love for my Creator, but sometimes it’s just hard for me to give all of me. If this isn’t parallel to motherhood, I don’t know what is. I love you, I can go through the motions, but sometimes I’m so distracted and tired that I just don’t put my heart into it. Both motherhood and worship ask me to give of myself, to reach from what is left of me and offer it to another. That’s hard. But when it hits, when I think of how GOOD God is to me, how GOOD He is on His own, oh how I praise Him. When I think about what He’s saved me from and what He’s led me to, I can’t help but worship Him. And what an honor to use my life to worship Him beyond the Sunday service times. What a loving God to look upon my life, full of fumbles, and say, “I can use that.” How often must our offerings of praise to Him be like the macaroni crafts we receive from our own children – imperfect, falling apart in places, but offered with love and awe and received with gratitude and affection. God is SO GOOD, ya’ll, and He has chosen YOU. Remember the next time that you are distracted, depleted, that He hand-made and hand-picked YOU. How much easier the brokenness is to bear when you’re reminded that you can be made whole by the One who made you to begin with.

Momming is hard. It can be frustrating. It can lead to the most tremendous self-doubt and the most stifling isolation. I find myself sitting here with dried tears on my cheeks, equal parts frustration with my kids and mourning the idea of “normal”. It just rarely looks like we thought it would, this parenting gig. I can list what I’ve given up and long for what I’ve yet to get, but at the end of the very long day, curled into a ball of brokenness, touched-out, talked-out, doubting it all, I see a stuffed animal I sewed back together and realize: it’s not all about me. It never will be. Whatever my frustrations and sacrifices, however real and valid, they will never overwhelm the need my children have for me. The will of God for me to influence them as people will not shrink back because I haven’t had a Snickers in months. Again, self care is incredibly necessary, and the needs we have are very real. I’m not dismissing them. I’m just reminding us, reminding myself, that motherhood by nature is about someone else. I am very much looking forward to Heaven someday, when I can freely worship my God all day, for eternity. So for now I can prepare myself by worshipping Him with my life, with my actions. I can view motherhood as His will and not an inconvenience. I can prepare for Heaven tomorrow by worshiping through my actions today.

If I will allow motherhood to become an act of worship, I am inviting God to be instrumental in my walk as a mother. No pun intended. I can acknowledge my shortcomings and imperfections, both as a Christ-follower and a mother, and say, “Here I am, Father. Use what you can of what’s left of me.” I can end each night in tears, knowing that while my offering may not have been perfect, it was done in worship. Jesus’ walk to Golgotha was painful, bumpy. He needed help to get there. And while I wouldn’t necessarily compare motherhood to crucifixion, I will say that both are journeys of sacrifice and completion. Both are the will of God asking very much of us in the name of love for our children. Jesus felt such stress that He sweat blood, He asked God if there was any other way. Not once did His love or commitment to us waiver just because he felt the weight of it all. Not once do we stop loving our children because it is hard to care for them. Jesus stumbling never meant He couldn’t do it, and the same is true for you, mama. And at the end, be it on a cross or waving your child off at their wedding reception, when we cry out that it is finished, we know that the sacrifice, the pain was worth it. That God was glorified, His will was done, and our children are better for it. Jesus’ story didn’t end on the cross and yours doesn’t end at graduation.

Every set of sheets you change in the night, every tear that you wipe, every correction you give, every meal you feed them, every ride to school, every doctor appointment, every ride from practice, every load of laundry, every dish you clean, every video game you research, every Pokémon story you listen to, every teacher you meet with, every book you listen to them slowly stumble through, every pile of crumbs you sweep, every backpack you check, every jacket you hang, every carseat you buckle, every cough medicine you give, every little, thankless, tiring job you do and every huge, significant, exhausting obstacle you tackle, they’re all acts of worship. They all honor God as you walk in His will. The Virgin Mary is mostly noted as having given birth to Jesus, but between the manger and the cross she performed untold amounts of tasks to care for Him. Mary, the mother of God, bathed her infant, taught Him things, cleaned up after Him, fed Him. Motherhood was necessary to the will of God. You, mama, you who is tired, discouraged, drained – you are necessary to the will of God. You are worshipping God in your faithfulness, in your tasks. You aren’t dressed in your Sunday best and you aren’t harmonizing to beautiful music, but you are worshiping Him. “Here I am, God. I can’t do this without You and I’m offering to do it for You. Do what You will with what’s left of me.”

 

 

Measuring Others’ Pain

This post has been stirring in my heart for a while. It seems that almost every conversation I have had for the last few weeks has just confirmed the need for me to write these words down, even if only to humble myself into accepting them. I myself am guilty of what I’m about to write about, as many of us are, and I apologize.

We all, at any point in our lives, have a friend or loved one who is hurting. Death. Sickness. Divorce. Infertility. Special needs. Mental illness. The loss of a job. The loss of a child. The loss of a parent. The loss of a home. The loss of an ability. The loss of a friendship. Addiction. Affairs. Abuse. Straight-up drama.  We can all call to the front of our minds someone we know who is going through something painful. I can name a friend for almost all of the above-mentioned situations, and it’s sobering. Pain is all around us, even when it doesn’t directly affect us. We cannot always protect those we care about from experiencing it and we cannot walk this earth without at some point feeling it ourselves. Pain is a part of life, and a very important part at that. And while pain is, at some point, unavoidable, that does not make it dismissible.

My oh my, how many times have we heard the plight of a friend and commented to ourselves, “If I were in that situation, I’d……”, almost with a sense of superiority, as though our opinion of their situation held more weight than the situation itself?

“I’d never stand for that.”

“I’d never stay if he did that.”

“It’s been six months already, how has she not moved on?”

“I’d have seen a doctor sooner.”

“I’d go to college.”

“I’d get a better-paying job.”

“I’d never do that.”

“I can’t believe she stayed.”

“I can’t believe she left.”

“I can’t believe she’s still talking about it.”

We go on and on, offering our opinions instead of our support, proud of ourselves for having it all together and never realizing how lucky we are to be able to view the pain from the outside. Or we apply our own experience.

“When that happened to me, I pulled myself up by the bootstraps.”

“I worked hard, so anyone else can, too.”

“It worked for me, there’s no reason she can’t do it.”

“I was smart enough to leave.”

“I struggle, too, but you don’t hear me crying about it.”

“I never let my kids do that.”

“I had to pay, they should, too.”

The fact is, pain is not quantitative. There is no way to measure what another person is going through, therefore there is no way to compare what they’re going through.

There is no expiration date for grief, no way to determine when an appropriate amount of time has passed before one must “get over it”. Whether a pregnancy was lost in the early weeks or in the delivery room does not hold any weight to the pain felt. There is no “at least” that will bring comfort to the persons who have said goodbye to someone they love – “at least you were only 6 weeks pregnant”, “at least you know you can get pregnant”, “at least you had all that time together”, “at least they went quickly”, “at least you had time to prepare yourself”, “at least you had a chance to say goodbye”, “at least you’re young”, “at least they were old”…. there is no “at least” that is bigger than the hole left behind.

Disappointment is not relative. A friend of mine delivered her first baby a few years ago and was deeply disappointed over the experience, as it had not gone as she’d planned and prepared for. In the middle of her tears she said, almost apologetically, “I know, at least I didn’t have to have a C-section like you, so I should be grateful…” NO. Disappointment is not relative. My disappointment being different from her disappointment does not make hers less, and does not make mine more. It’s okay to admit disappointment – it’s not the same as discontentment. And that old monster “At Least” has no place in disappointment. “At least” hints that the pain that is felt is too great, that the feelings experienced are not proportionate to the situation. But as grief cannot be quantified, there is no such thing as proportionate pain.

Mourning is not morning – it is not over at a specific time. A death, a divorce, whatever has ended has an effect, and your opinion of how long the process has taken does not speed it up. “Long enough” is not helpful, is not supportive. It does not push one towards healing, but rather towards isolation. If someone cannot share their pain with you because of how you attempt to measure or judge it, they will keep it to themselves and share the burden of their feelings alone.

While we are not meant to be sad, we are meant to feel sadness when it arises. One of the most powerful representations I’ve ever seen of its importance was, of all places, in a Pixar movie. If you haven’t seen Inside Out, go rent it tonight! The main character, Joy, obviously wants everything to be happy all the time, as do most of us. Social media, Pinterest, tv, Instagram… we’re surrounded by the most perfect and joyous of images and messages all day long, and we like it. We strive for it. But when something legitimately sad happens, Joy tries to push through, move on, gloss over it and pretend like it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. In the movie – and I promise you I paused immediately after this scene to wipe my tears and explain how impactful it was to my kids – Sadness sits down and talks about how sad it is. She lets the tears flow, admits that it is sad, and feels the pain of it all. Once this has happened – and ONLY after this has happened – are they able to move on in their journey. Sadness must be felt. We have to acknowledge how painful something is before we can begin to heal from it. To become stronger we must admit we were once weaker, and accept that neither is better than the other. Sadness, pain, grief, mourning, disappointment – they’re all very real emotions that will take place regardless of our opinion of the circumstances they showed up in.

Ah, the circumstances. This one is tough, because all too often the circumstances of one’s pain create an excuse for others to dismiss them. You never liked that friend’s husband so you’re not sad to see their marriage fail. You don’t do drugs so you have a hard time feeling compassion for those who lose everything to addiction. You would never let your kids behave so poorly so you feel justified when someone else’s teenager runs away. You know he cheated before so you have a hard time feeling sorry for your friend who stayed anyway when he does it again. You judged their spending habits or their low-paying jobs so you judge their bankruptcy or their pleas for help. You had success with a weight loss program so you are exasperated with your overweight friend. But our opinions, again, are not helpful. They didn’t protect anyone from getting hurt and they certainly won’t help anyone to heal. To put it plainly, it truly, 100%, completely, wholly DOES NOT MATTER what we think. We do not get to decide who is deserving of their pain. Not agreeing with another’s pain does not negate it. Just because you don’t agree with someone’s divorce does not mean you can drop off a casserole and hope it goes away. Your discomfort is not a factor any more than your opinion. People around us are hurting, and we are not called to sit in judgement of them. We don’t have to like what’s happening, only love the person its happening to.

That’s what it all comes down to, really – judgement. We think we know better, think we’d do better, feel we’ve done better. But the hurting ones around us are not asking for our expertise, they’re asking for our compassion. One of the most humbling experiences of my life has been to tell someone I love that I support their decisions because I support them, and then watch them make a decision I would not have made. So what am I to do now? Do I withdraw my support because I disagree, or do I swallow my pride and recognize that my opinion is literally worth nothing in such matters? Do I henceforth offer only conditional support to loved ones in the hopes that they’ll do what I want them to? Do I sit in bitter judgement and disbelief at their choices, or do I thank God that I am not in the same boat, having to make the same ones? Do I turn up my nose or lend them my ear?

Don’t misunderstand me, support is not the same as enabling. Enabling is offering your permission; support is offering your hand. Enabling is making something possible; support is making someone stronger. Support is propping up someone when they’re too weak to stand on their own. Support is listening to them, crying with them, praying for them. It’s offering your help, your ear, your time, your words when asked and your shoulder when needed. Only offering support when your opinions are followed is friendship on demand, it’s help for sale, it’s selfish. So when you find yourself beginning to judge someone else’s pain or reactions, as yourself, “How on EARTH is their pain about ME?”

It’s not.

So stop telling people to get over it already. Stop telling yourself you’d do any better. Stop trying to measure someone else’s pain and stop kidding yourself that you even can. Start listening without forming an opinion. Start acknowledging sadness when you’d rather stick your head in the sand. Start accepting that there is only so much you can control, and it’s even less than you think. Start being a friend instead of a jury. And for the love, stop telling people how to feel.

 

Part Two: I Am “That Mom” (and here’s why)

You had to know a part two was coming. I couldn’t very well call out my son for being “that kid” without admitting that I am “that mom”, right?

I didn’t set out to be That Mom. None of us do. I know I’ve started numerous emails with, “I promise I’m not trying to be That Mom,” “Not to be That Mom, but…”, or just the blatant, “I’m not That Mom.” But it happened. I am That Mom. In the same way that we women often apologize more often than we need to, we seem to be terrified of being seen as or referred to as That Mom. As if we’ll send the PTO running for the hills away from us, the dragon lady who breathes fire and eats teachers. As if being That Mom were synonymous with being a Bad Mom.

I am not one for confrontation. I’m not good at it, it makes me uncomfortable. I’m great at responding and reacting, but to confront an issue I must first dwell on it for a while, talk myself out of it a few times, ask friends to tell me any other way to get around it, allow myself to get flushed, hear my heartbeat, and probably cry from frustration. Once these steps have been achieved, I can now timidly approach confrontation. Why? Well, to be honest, most of the time it’s because I’m afraid of how I’ll be perceived. I want to be liked, and that’s as hard to admit as confrontation is to initiate. I like smiling and getting along with people. I want things to go well, and I don’t want to be associated with negative things or thoughts. But that’s just not life. Things happen and things have to be dealt with, and when you have That Kid, things happen and have to be dealt with more often.

I’m not blaming my That Mom status on my kid. I didn’t become That Mom because of him, I became That Mom for him. Because he needs an advocate. Because he is a square peg and the round hole isn’t always a good fit. Because there are cracks in every system no matter how wonderful it is. Not because I enjoy arguing, not because I’m angry inside, not because I think he’s an infallible snowflake, not because I’m picking on anyone, not because I have it out for someone, not because I’m impossible to please, and definitely not because I’m a b word. Because the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Because I can either sit back and allow the cracks to swallow him, or I can speak up on his behalf. I am That Mom because he needs me to be. I am That Mom because I am HIS mom.

My kids’ teachers are saints, before this is taken as a rant against anyone. They have wings and just about walk on water as far as I’m concerned. But they’re overworked, underpaid, and have their hands tied in an increasing number of ways. More often than not the situations where I speak up are situations where they cannot. I even had one angelic teacher thank me for using my voice and speaking up. Where school is concerned, there are a growing number of cracks for children to fall through. Class size, test prep, 22 different IEP’s, integration, transition time, finding ways to get PE time in during Spanish… schools are being choked more and more by legislation and requirements, and the teachers who volunteered to help shape our young people are often left with only the power to check boxes. Sometimes a need isn’t met, and I don’t blame the teacher, but that doesn’t mean our kids don’t deserve what they showed up for. So when it comes to school, I will take what he needs and leave the whispers behind. I will speak up for him and ensure that he is fought for, taught to, and included, no matter how it makes me look. Because I guarantee you that the stares and judgements and derogatory names will not matter or even cross my mind when I see him graduate. If the administration is breathing a sigh of relief to see him gone, so be it. We can speak up on political affairs, the management of our favorite sports teams, and pop culture, but not on behalf of our kids? That’s a big fat NOPE from me. No one else can be my kids’ mom – that privilege and work belongs to me alone. And if I don’t work harder on their behalf than I do at being liked I will have failed. Miserably.

It’s not like it’s a source of pride. I don’t use “haters” as fuel or anything so dramatic. I’m not immune to the eye rolls and sighs and tension. I’m saddened each time I know I’ve blown a chance at a friendship by speaking up. I’m not out on a mission to get anyone fired, and I hate to think of anyone getting into trouble because of me. But I can’t let my timidity overrule my children’s needs. I can’t not stand up for what’s right just because I want everyone to like me. Ultimately it doesn’t matter if I make friends, it matters that they get what they need.

Last year an issue arose where my son did not get what he needed, that middle kid of mine. It was a big deal, by anyone’s standards, and rippled out to affect others. So I showed up and did my work as That Mom. In this particular instance there really may have been steam coming from my nostrils, but I didn’t eat any teachers and I wasn’t on the news, so we’ll call it a win. I knew the exact moment I was trading in “I love that mom!” for “Oh, she’s That Mom, ” but I could either back down and try to make a friend at my son’s expense or hold someone accountable. He needed what he was promised. A few months after, a friend of mine saw me at the store and asked me about it. I was quite surprised, as I hadn’t advertised it or vented publicly. Somehow, though, as will happen, some person shared some version of it, and the gossip mill got to work grinding out sensational tales of Jennifer the Whip-Wielding Crusader Mom. That’s not really word-for-word, but it was quite a story. To be honest, I was first surprised that anyone even knew who I was to share the story. That meant that I could no longer go incognito at pickup and show up makeup-free in my sweats, hoping my messy hair was going unnoticed. Dang. If people know who I am enough to share stories about me, they’re going to see me when I show up. Now I have to wear pants with a zipper. Ugh. My next reaction was one of embarrassment. What must these people think of me? I bet they’re hoping they don’t get a class with any of my kids! Do the kids’ teachers know the true version of what happened, or are they going to cower when I walk in to Meet the Teacher? What do people think?! Eh, it doesn’t matter. If they think I’m a crusader, awesome. Maybe it will empower them to speak up on behalf of their kid. Maybe they’ll approach me with suggestions and energy about how to fight for change in the system. Or maybe they’ll just be scared of me and let me sit in peace in my sweats in the pickup line. Either way, their opinion didn’t matter. They definitely formed thoughts, judgements, and gossipy tales, but it didn’t affect what my son needed or what he got. They’re going to talk. I can’t control what they’ll say about me. But I can control how my son will remember me fighting for him.

Which leads me to the main, ultimate, single most important reason I am That Mom.

Last week that same middle kid (it’s always him) took a fall at school. It was a total accident, but he hit his face HARD on the floor – chipped tooth, lots of blood, and we later found out a broken nose. He was glassy-eyed, irritable, and very tired, so I took him to the emergency room just to be safe. When the doctor came in, she spent less than 3 minutes with him – checking his tooth, checking his tongue, feeling his broken nose and telling him he could go home. I know I’m not a doctor, but it seemed a bit rushed and incomplete, knowing we were there for a possible concussion.

This is where it gets good.

My son was as surprised as I was. Maybe surprised isn’t the right word – he was angry. “That’s IT?” he asked, completely incredulous. “You’re not going to check me or anything?” The doctor, bless her, didn’t know this boy or the IQ he walked in with. She assured him he was fine, which only ruffled him more. “I’m not fine, that’s why I’m in here.” She asked if maybe she had used some words that he didn’t understand, which seemed to add fuel to his fire. “I understood everything you said perfectly, which is why I’m upset.” We were a printout away from being discharged, and here he was, speaking up in a room full of adults, advocating for himself. Sure we can work on his delivery, but the bravery it took was still incredible. I had tears in my eyes, not from embarrassment – from pride. This little boy wasn’t trying to put anyone in their place, he wasn’t trying to be disrespectful, he wasn’t trying to prove anything, he was only trying to get the care he needed. And he knew what to do in a situation where he felt he wasn’t being heard – he spoke up. Speaking up eventually led to him getting a CT scan, which it turned out he needed. If he hadn’t advocated for himself, I don’t know what would have happened. He has seen me fight for him and now knows that he can fight back, too. He knows that if something isn’t right, you can say something. Then say something else. And keep saying something until someone listens and it gets made right.

He’s only 8, so I don’t think my job is quite done yet. I’m not trying to protect my kids, I’m trying to equip them, and sometimes it takes losing a popularity contest to do that.

I know I’m not alone, know there are a lot of others out there doing the best they can for their kids at the expense of their image. High-five, Momma. Parenting is hard, and parenting to cater to everyone else’s opinions is impossible, so let’s stop apologizing for advocating and get our kids what they need. It doesn’t matter what they call us – That Mom, Tiger Mom, Mama Bear, Helicopter Mom, Room Mom, Team Mom… it only matters that we are a good mom.