Thursday, 18 April 2013

servants of dignity, part 2

I realize that I said that the "next post" would get into the "practicals" of this concept. That post is coming, but probably not for a week or two. I'm in the "information gathering stage" (contacting crisis pregnancy centers, women's shelters, low income school districts; setting up meetings; borrowing other people's small children to "see" what it is actually like to add another tiny child to my day). When a firmer picture emerges, it will be posted.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

simple simplicity

This summer I was following a really engaging blog on simple living. The author was attempting to radically simplify and she was eliminating "things" from her life at breakneck speed. It was fascinating! Inspired, I tried to follow some of her suggestions. Following her lead, I eliminated paper towels, paper napkins and dish sponges in favor of cloth napkins, dishtowels and rags. Next I banned aluminum foil, saran wrap and plastic baggies. After that, I replaced most of my cleaning products with things like vinegar or dishwashing liquid. I redoubled my commitment to cloth diapers. I trashed garbage bags, instead using whatever shopping bags accumulated in the house. I ruthlessly ravaged every drawer, cabinet and closet in the house, dumping several car loads of "nice but rarely-used" items at St Vincent de Paul. I thought about this woman constantly (I called her "The Simple Lady") and was really excited about the changes "we" were making to be more simple. The house felt so much more manageable. We were saving a good deal of money. It "felt good" to amp up the simplicity.

Then my "Simple Lady" ditched her microwave. Richard wouldn't let me ditch ours, but we agreed to move it to the basement. I shunned it altogether and he used the clandestine appliance only rarely. He calls it his 'Black Market Microwave'....

Then she got rid of her bed. I thought that was perhaps ridiculous.

Then she stopped using shampoo and started growing dreads.

I gave up. She had me beat.

But I didn't stop following her blog. Every now and then she added something that we mortals could do as well - and if possible, I did. But in December, she suggested that a good way to simplify Christmas - and protect the environment - was to eliminate Christmas lights altogether. That really stopped me dead in my tracks. For the first time I began to wonder what "simplifying" was really all about. If we can't be a little lavish with electricity at Christmas to honor the Incarnation of the Light of the World.....are we really doing simplicity for the right reasons? I finally thought to wonder if growing dreadlocks contributed anything to the world at large?

I had to do a little soul-searching about what my own quest for simplicity was really all about. I came up with a lot of reasons that simplicity is so trendy these days. It's good for the environment. It saves money. It makes our houses tidy and spacious and more like the Beautiful Houses in magazines. It makes us feel good about ourselves (perhaps in a self-righteous sort of way) in contrast to the rampant materialism of our culture. At the very least it assuages some of the guilt of being so deeply implicit in the world of "have" when so many "have not".

Most of those are not bad reasons to desire simplicity....but there has to be a better reason to pursue simplicity. These reasons are not at the heart of Christian simplicity. Live simply so that others may simply live. Yes! But the way I was pursuing simplicity was not really helping anyone else to simply live. Or at least that was not my primary aim in pursuing profound simplicity.

Then Richard and I started looking for a new house. We are renting an adorable, cozy little house with a lovely flower garden in the backyard. In many ways, it is a great fit for our desire to be simple souls. So when the owners decided to put the house on the market, we seriously considered buying the house. For a variety of reasons, that turned out to be an impractical idea and we began looking at all sorts of houses. The house we ended up wanting most was a surprise to us both. In short, it didn't fit our image of "simplicity".

Richard liked it mainly because nothing was breaking inside. Unlike most of the houses we considered, this house had a new roof, a new furnace and a new water heater. There was no foreseeable major expense coming down the pike with this house.  He also liked that in this house, we'd have a bedroom that could accommodate more than just the bed. At present, our queen-size bed takes up the entire room (and blocks the door from fully opening) and if you want to get up in the night for a glass of water, you must grasp the bed, edging carefully around it to avoid tripping over the bodies of various children who have migrated to our floor overnight.

I'm better at not squishing a child in the night than Richard is and so I liked the house mainly because it had a nice backyard and a lake. Three seasons out of four, my kids and I spend mostly outdoors. The whole time I was in New Zealand, I pined for my house back in Pennsylvania. But when we got home, I only got to live in it for three months before we moved again. To my surprise, I don't miss that house at all. I miss the yard. So I was happy to find a house with a lovely backyard where the kids and I can grow sunflowers and strawberries and feed squirrels. It's a great space for setting up a sandbox and a sprinkler for the kids and a porch swing for their parents. The house also is within close walking distance of a long, narrow lake with a paved trail. I'm so excited to walk and bike alone, and with Rich, and with the kids.

Those were the factors that weighed most heavily in favor of the house. We were also excited that the house had a wood burning fireplace (something we've wanted but never had in any of the five homes we've had together since marrying seven years ago....). But both of us hesitated to make an offer on the house because of the feeling that the house was not "simple enough". In reality, it's not an elaborate house. Nothing inside the house is updated or upscale. It's simply newer and more roomy than we'd expected "our kind of house" to be.

I did some soul-searching about why we were considering that particular house and I realized that it was because it seemed to offer our family the most opportunities to enjoy.... the truly simple things in life. It was a space where we could snuggle around a crackling fire in the winter and quietly tend sunflowers in the summer. The traffic-free lake trail would allow us to easily devote family outings to biking and feeding ducks instead of visiting commercial establishments. In the house itself there would be ample space to offer hospitality and create community. Since the vast majority of the families we know now have four children, asking two friends over for lunch on a Saturday means having twelve children and six adults to fit into the house; hosting a daytime women's prayer group has sometimes meant having seven women and sixteen or more children in the house (-it has also meant limiting the invitation list for lack of space). But still - we held back.

Sometime during the month that we hesitated and deliberated about the house, it finally hit me. My idea of simplicity was really....shallow. It was also very vain. And it was (ironically) materialistic. Basically my version of simplicity boiled down to a question of the image that I wanted to possess and/or project rather than the orientation of my heart. It was mostly about the stuff I owned or did not want to own.  Upon seeing the insipid version of simplicity I had been pursuing, I was forced to try to redefine the type of simplicity that I ought to be pursuing. Real simplicity serves persons - both in their need to be welcomed, loved and nurtured by community - and in their need for the material basics. Over the course of a few days, my understanding of the proper pursuit of simplicity was radically altered. The blogs and the magazines may beg to differ, but actually, simplicity is not about things! That is the whole point!

We  can't quantify simplicity by evaluating anyone's material possessions - because real simplicity is about looking at persons instead of things. Real simplicity frees me to forget "things" and my own image - and focus more on Jesus and other people. Genuine simplicity is not the self-serving "virtue" that the magazines imply it is - it must free us to meet the needs of others. Real simplicity welcomes the gift of the person, and sees "things" as a means of making the person comfortable and fostering a sense of community. In contrast, "cultural simplicity" is still about persons serving things and being defined by their things. It might be more apt to call it "elegant minimalism" than real simplicity. Contrary to the blog/magazine version of "simplifying", authentic simplicity has less to do with what stuff is in your home and more to do with who is welcome in the home (and how comfortable and free they feel in that space). It also has much to do with our stewardship of whatever material things the Lord has allowed to pass into our care - how preoccupied we are with obtaining and maintaining things, and how tightly we're holding on to those things in our homes. Are we willing to loan them out? Let a child touch them? Give them away when we realize someone else needs them more than we do? Risk that they will be damaged rather than protect them at the expense of damaging the feelings of another person? Neglect our upkeep or enjoyment of them in favor of being present to persons? Venture away from them in order to serve others and get involved in our community? Deny ourselves the endless desire for the acquisition of more/newer/nicer so as to be able to give more abundantly to those without the basics? I think these are the questions that "simply" beg to be asked.

We bought the house. So we're not perfectly simple people anymore. And it turns out that we never were to begin with. But I pray that the path to perfect simplicity winds around that sweet little lake and through a house bursting with people. I pray that it leads to a place where I can answer all those questions I've just realized that I need to be asking with a resounding "yes!". I pray it leads to a joyful and close knit family - a family that happily foregoes many of our "wants" so as better to be able to supply the "needs" of others. Most of all, I hope it makes me more fully and generously available to Christ and anything He asks of me. Any other kind of simplicity would be simply a waste.

Friday, 12 April 2013

servants of dignity, pt 1

About a year and a half ago, I blogged about an idea that was on my mind: a theoretical bunch of nuns called "The Servants of Dignity". I have spent many days since thinking more about the idea. In recent months, the idea has begun to evolve and to press more urgently against the bars of my mind. I never really thought that I was meant to found a religious order. But I did begin to think that I might be capable of helping one person. So I began praying about the idea of offering one day of free child care every week to a single mom. My husband was supportive of this inspiration, so next I spoke at length to my most amazing nun-friend in the world - there she is - the super cute one on the right.....
And I didn't really tell anyone else. I was still discerning the idea and thought it might end up being really impractical given the four children already in my daily care. My friend, Sr Grace Dominic, a Sister of Life, assured me that that was no selfish consideration.  Since her entire ministry is centered on the pro-life cause, she was able to tell me some other concrete practical things that women in crisis pregnancies need but often lack.  But I kept coming back to that first idea.

And then was one of those impossible days. After being up all night with an infant burning with a fever of over 104 degrees, I had to take him (with all three of his siblings) to the doctor's office first thing this morning. After hurriedly dressing the kids and shoving on my own clothes, I tried to put in my contacts and my eyes absolutely blistered. At first I thought it was from lack of sleep - then I realized that my three year old had "cleaned" the inside of my contact case with liquid handsoap the day before. Unfortunately that same three year old had snapped both of the (sticks?) off the sides of my eyeglasses last week and I'd had no time to get them repaired. So I had no choice but to hold the lens portion of the glasses over my eyes as I drove to the doctor. The three and five year old bickered the whole trip. The two year old had diarrhea. The doctor sent us to the hospital for blood work. It took an hour. None of us had eaten anything yet. The girls bickered until I both said and did regrettable (non-parenting-with-grace) things. The toddler squirted more. The baby wailed. When we got home the toddler dumped a full open glass of Welch's purple grape juice all over the living room carpet of the rented home in which we live (and which is currently for sale with a viewing scheduled for this weekend). I cried. And, in the midst of all this chaos, I read about the Gosnell trial. I read through fresh aching tears. And in one overemotional, passionate moment of being overwhelmed with motherhood and not-motherhood all at once, I wrote a most absurdly long Facebook post and decided that "Servants of Dignity" was more properly suited for being a grassroots movement than a religious order. I decided definitely to act on the idea and to publicly invite others to do so alongside me.

In New Zealand, I'd had a dream of a group of nuns who would pick up where the pro-life movement tends to let off. In my opinion, the pro-life momentum seems to come to a screeching halt at that excruciatingly crucial moment where the mother chooses life, the baby is born, and the pair are sent off into the sunset with a bunch of really cute infant clothes and diapers. (Life, what a beautiful choice!)

I don't think pro-lifers and pro-choicers are hearing each other. I know there is not a pro-choice slogan in the world that will sway a person convinced of the sacredness of the unborn child. But I think most pro-life slogans sound absolutely fruity to the pro-choicers, and I understand why. It's not as simple as we're making it sound. It's like we've never stepped foot in an inner city. It's like we have no idea of the real, everyday suffering that a woman and her child will face after she makes a decision to keep her baby - even if she and her child are spared the hell of the inner city. It is so, so hard to raise a child even under the best of circumstances: in a stable marriage, with a supportive spouse, with financial security, with relative maturity, supported by adoring grandparents and doting friends, on a safe street with a great school district. Of all the woman I know raising kids (plural) - and I know many... and they are rich and poor, married and divorced, lonely and surrounded by community -  I do not know one mother amongst them who is not seriously struggling. True, I have some friends with just one child who are loving every golden moment, but even among my friends who are parenting only one child, many are feeling overwhelmed and stressed.  Even under the best of circumstances!

Now, let's take that same woman and take away her income, her spouse, her nice house, her health insurance. Let's also take away a decade of personal maturity. And let's suppose that her child is not planned, and not a "surprise",  but an absolute shock. There is no sense, at this point, in getting up on a soapbox about sexual consequences or sex education or any of the rest of it. We should dialogue about those issues, but let's just focus on this woman in this crisis situation right here. If she is living in fear of her parents' and friends' condemnation, our pro-life slogans barely reach her.  If she is living (or has lived) the hardships of the inner city, our slogans seem ridiculously ignorant. I remember praying once in front of an inner city abortion clinic and being screamed at by many residents who insisted that we didn't understand their life. They were right.

I am starting to understand how compassionate people can be pro-choice. I am not pro-choice (anymore!) and never will be again. I simply understand that a childhood defined by fatherlessness, parental drug use, poverty, violence, physical abuse or other pain can SEEM worse than the evil of abortion. I think the pro-life movement has been pretty successful in overturning the ignorant argument that "it's not a real human person". I think we have miles to go in overturning the astute observation that raising children is really, really hard - especially when you have precious little support. I think most pro-choicers know (on some level) that the "fetus" is (or might be) a real person. That's why nobody boasts about their abortions. But I think that pro-choicers are looking at an impossible dilemma (with a "quick mercy killing" on one side and long, drawn-out years of real and bitter suffering on the other) and choosing the "easier" way.

So I want to be part of the solution. I want to offer practical support. I believe that prayer is truly powerful - and that prayer with fasting is even more powerful. I will pray and fast.

I also believe that the Lord responds to prayer and fasting by calling people to action. I think that the Lord will hold us all accountable for abortion. He asked the goats on his left, "Where were you when I was hungry?" and He will ask us "Where were you when I was being aborted?" The sheep on His right performed Corporal Acts of Mercy. They saw a need and offered practical support. They fed the hungry.

A lot of pro-choicers donate money and baby items. No doubt that is practical support and it is good to do so. But I think we need more people who are going to also put themselves face-to-face with the women and children who need support. I think support has to have a face - and two arms. This is where the Servants of Dignity come in. This post is long. I am tired. The next post or two will continue in this vein - hopefully bearing the fruit of additional reflection, prayer and dialogue with others willing to help. Thank you for reading this long post. Please pray for this endeavor!

Friday, 5 April 2013

parenting with grace

I read a fabulous book over Lent that I am just bursting to share! I have one child who drives me a little bit crazy and someone (well, several someones) Recommended A Book.  Now the kind of women I like always Recommend A Book whenever anyone shares anything. So when I shared with some friends that I was being challenged beyond my ken and they responded with a Book Recommendation - well, I was thrilled.

This was not the first parenting book I've ever read. To be precise, I think it is the two hundred and fourth parenting book I have read to date. It is, with no competition, the best.

I read it really, really fast. It was gripping. It was a parenting page-turner. It dazzled and blinded me with one paradigm shift upon the next. There were so many new thoughts racing through my mind, I couldn't process or act upon any of them. So I read it again - really, really slowly. I put little check marks in the margins next to everything that astounded me. Some pages were covered with check marks.

Then, I took notes. I read the book a third time and wrote down a summary of everything I had checked off. This was a LENT, folks!  I rewrote those notes in a more organized fashion, dividing everything I most liked into four categories (with three self-created "stages" for revamping my approach to parenting). I wrote a third draft of the notes, more neatly and succinctly. I began studying them nightly as I used to study for graduate school exams. Did I mention what a l-e-n-t this was?!?!  I prayed over the notes. I began implementing the first stage. And then the second. And now the third.

And it has all gone so marvelously. 

After enthusiastically recommending the book to every parent I know (plus some people who have no children), I still have more enthusiasm left. I'm now going to recommend it to people I don't know. The book is titled Parenting With Grace and it is written by the Greg and Lisa Popcak. [Some caveats: I find their tone often borders on nearly unbearably "holier-than-thou". I also take issue with a few borderline snarky sounding comments about the Protestant "theology of the child", if you will. But after reading so many wonderful Christian books containing snarky comments about Catholics, I've developed an ability to take what is good from a book and ignore what is not!  And truly, the book is good. It's been a massive turning point in my experience of parenting. PS - I read the second edition, which I believe contains a lot of great material that was not in the first edition.]

Until reading this book, I really, really, really believed (though almost without realizing I believed this) that the best way to tell how I was "doing" as a parent was to look at the way my children behaved. Were they Obedient? Polite? Honest? Obedient? Kind? Obedient? Reading? OBEDIENT?!?!?!?!?!!? (Incidentally, I also believed that this was the best way to tell how someone else was doing as a parent. If anyone had tried to dissuade me from this opinion, I would have written her off as one of those "Marshmallow Mother Trying To Be Her Spoiled-Brat-Kid's Best Friend, Good Luck When She's A Teenager" kind of parent. I was probably being a wee bit harsh.... Possibly judgmental.....)

I am grateful to the Popcaks for freeing me (and my children) from this painful, high-pressure, vice-like grip on demanding that my children act in a certain way in order to validate my all-consuming desire to be a Good Parent. My friends, most likely, are grateful as well.

Instead, I'm convinced now that the litmus test for "how I'm doing as a parent" is how warm and loving is my relationship with each child? If that piece is securely in place, discipline is far, far more effective. To the degree that the attachment is weak, all discipline will fail to some degree. (I mean, what parent really wants to produce a perfectly behaved child who hates your guts?)

Even though I have resisted this parenting theory for almost six years, during my years as a teacher I had instinctively understood it. Without ever being told, I knew that as long my students knew I really LIKED them, I could discipline very gently - almost imperceptibly - and they'd behave for me (according to the reasonable and high expectations of the school as a whole). I taught for three years at a high school just outside of New York City and never had a student who I really could not manage. That is the truth. My only secret was that I liked them. Yes, all of them. Sincerely. And I showed it unreservedly - they knew! Certainly there were days when a student acted up, and there were students who I found more challenging than others, but I never once walked out of school on a Friday in despair about returning on Monday. I always was utterly confident that with enough thought, creativity and time, I was going to win over the student and secure her cooperation. Teaching like that was the most rewarding, fulfilling, satisfying experience imaginable. Even during seasons of moderate depression, I was truly happy during my working hours.

So why was a five year old able to undo me in a way that 18 year olds had not.....????

To figure that out, I had to reflect on my second teaching experience. From the day I walked in to school #2, I felt physically and emotionally intimidated by my students. The behavioral expectations at that school were extremely lax and it was difficult to persuade my students that mine were not unreasonable. The tone that defined my relationship with these classes was wariness, not affection. Without that unguarded, happy rapport that I'd shared with my first two hundred students, all the same formerly successful disciplinary techniques were now failing. Badly. I could not control these students. A few began physically intimidating me. I became more cold and even my affection for growing pockets of students became more and more difficult to express. I often started crying as soon as I got in my car to drive home. I was utterly unsure of myself, certain I was failing, overwhelmed and clueless about what to do to fix it.

A lot more reminiscent of some of my days as a parent.....

None of my four children intimidate me. I'm not wary of them. But I'm tired (and also exhausted). And also fatigued. I'm busy. I'm multitasking. Questions can start to seem exasperating. Ditto for Standard Childhood Behavior (dawdling, bickering, whining, spilling, etc....). I have clear, high expectations that will be enforced, as per school #1. But I've simply forgotten to make it my number one priority every day to show affection. And, as I learned while teaching, affection makes all the difference in the effectiveness of discipline.

So, "Phase One" of my Motherhood Renovation was simply to focus on showing affection (in insanely simple ways). More eye contact. Eye contact with smiles. More listening - really listening - really being mentally present. Putting the two babies down and making room on my lap for the bigger kids. Rumpling hair as I poured juice. Taking the bigger kids out on just one short one-on-one outing every single week.  None of this is hard. I just had forgotten. I realized that sometimes, perhaps, the only way my oldest child could really get me to stop everything, look her in the eyes and give her my undivided, riveted attention, was to do something sort of awful to one of the other three. And so she did.

The book said that it would take at least two weeks to see a behavioral change from increased affection. It took two days.  I decided to move on to the behaviors I had identified as "Phase Two".  These were changes I knew it would be harder to make or to be consistent about. Some turned out to be easier than I thought. For example, instead of getting exasperated every morning about how many times I had to remind and prod the 3 & 5 year old to get ready for the day, I simply posted THIS in the bathroom.

I made a similar one for their bedroom.

I have not had to remind, nag, plead or yell since. I send one child upstairs to do the bathroom list and the other to do the bedroom list. Then they switch rooms. My mornings are infinitely more lovely. I'm a visual learner myself (I do not understand or retain any information that is simply said to me -I have to see it.) It turns out that my children are just the same. My expectations are much clearer to them now that they can SEE them.

Other Phase Two changes (in my order of increasing difficulty!) include:
1. Showing respect (instead of exasperation) for all a child's stated and implied needs (including, especially, the ones that seem most ridiculous, frustrating or inconvenient).

2. Calmly teaching what ought to be done instead instead of punishing, criticizing or yelling about behavior that has been done.

3. Asking myself, "Do I do that?" about any pattern of bothersome childish behavior and striving intentionally to model the appropriate behavior. (In other words, if Child A regularly shouts at siblings or hits, is it possible that Child A has not learned from Mother how to appropriately deal with frustration.....?)

Phase Three is a list of the ten discipline techniques described in the book that I thought were most relevant and helpful given the routine behavior issues of the children (and mother...) in my house. Phase Three began concurrently with Phase Two, with the understanding that the emphasis at present is on Phase Two. Phase Three consists of habits that will take the longest and include:

-taking a child on your lap and almost whispering correction in their ear, rather than speaking harshly.

-offering an appropriate alternative to the undesirable behavior being exhibited (aka redirection)

-offering do-overs ("Please say/do that over again, but politely/gently this time")

-modified time-outs (before child leaves time-out, she must identify & role-play what she ought to have done instead. She must also apologize - and then she is given affection & affirmation)

-how to identify an appropriate and truly logical consequence. (what must the child do to fix the problem caused? or to practice what she ought to have done instead? or to grow in the virtue that is clearly lacking?)

Very few of the Phase Three suggestions are easy. None are short cuts. They all involve increased "self-donation". But I'm finding that as the weeks go by putting these things into practice, life is becoming far easier and more pleasant. I feel closer to my kids. I'm enjoying my days with them a lot more. I feel far more confident, peaceful, joyful and fulfilled as a mother. The kids are behaving better. Much, much better. I mean, they're hardly giving me any opportunities to practice at my Phase Three techniques.

And that is the whole point.......