Archive for Balance

Please Go Home Now (or How to Balance Your Child’s Need for Friendship with Your Own Need for Sanity)

teen friends“I need to get some more friends. I want my friends around all the time but sometimes my friends are too busy doing other stuff.” This remark was made this week by my 10-year-old son about 45 minutes after his and his 12-year-old sister’s five friends left our home to return to their own families. We had hosted them for six hours. I was exasperated and a little annoyed.

How much more can I do to encourage and support your friendships? Why can’t we just be together as a family and it’s enough for you? Why can’t I have a whole day without other people’s children at my house? That’s what I was thinking. Not very charitable.

Don’t get me wrong. For the most part, I love being “that house” where tons of kids come to hang out. I am delighted that my kids’ friends feel comfortable here and that I get to witness the unfolding of these lovely relationships, including the Lego building, Nerf wars, and lemonade stands. But sometimes I just want to lock my door and be alone with my family for a while. I want to put on my old flannel bathrobe, put my feet up on the coffee table, read a good (or even lousy) book, and enjoy the sound of nothing. At least nothing but my 4 kids, 2 chickens, dog, and husband.

My kids are maturing. When I started this blog, I had a new teenager and my other three children were still pretty small. My Lydia was only 2. Now my kids are 6, 10, 12 (almost 13), and 17. I’ve entered a new stage this last year as my older children are pressing to new phases of individuation and independence. My oldest child, Aidan, has friends and he’s always been interested in hanging out with them, but only a few times a week. He never had this impulse for constant contact with them like my two middle children have for their friends. I think Aidan is an introvert like my husband and me.  He says he needs lots of time alone to be happy. So do I, which is why the habits of the two middle kids sometimes challenges me and pushes me beyond my comfort zone.

The Desire for Friendship Is a Sign of God in Our Children

When my children ask to have their friends over for play dates or sleepovers, I nearly always say yes or I tell them when I will be able to say yes. We have kids at our house nearly every day and somebody sleeps over at our home nearly every weekend. Because we homeschool, it’s important to me that my children never feel they were deprived of chances to socialize and make friends. Particularly with the two middle children (my social butterflies), I strive to see their perspective. I know that my need for alone time may be far greater than theirs. I recognize that they may simply have different a temperament from my own, they may genuinely need more time with their friends than I ever did when I was their age.  I want to be open-minded and flexible.

I can see how in so many ways, their desire to be close to their friends is a sign of God in them. The desire to be known, understood, and accepted is uniquely human. Our yearning for friendship is natural because we are not meant to be alone; we can never be whole without communion and love. Our friendships remind us of how God feels about us and how he wants us to feel about him. He doesn’t want us to fear him, to avoid him; he wants us to hang out with him, to let our guard down. He’s the kind of friend who laughs at your bad jokes because he hears the joke the way you meant it, not the way it comes out.

God even uses our friends to reveal to us things we wouldn’t otherwise notice about others, the world, ourselves, and God. Friendships are little sacraments, a sign of God’s special graces and the instrument of some of his best surprises for us. I can use my children’s affection for their human friends to teach them these deeper truths about The Great Friend.

When Friendships Hurt Our Kids

On the other hand, we all know from our own experience that the devil can use our relationships to ensnare us; they can become an instrument of darkness. Wise parents have an awareness of two things when it comes to their kids’ friends: 1) the health of the dynamics between the child and their friends and 2) the balance in their homes between family and outside friends.

What makes for healthy or unhealthy friendships?

  • In healthy friendships, our child is able to be himself, and he’s able to grow and change as he matures. In unhealthy friendships, our child is fearful of being himself, and the other friend feels threatened by our child’s new interests or developing abilities.
  • In healthy friendships, our child is free to have other friends. In unhealthy friendships, our child doesn’t nourish new friendships because her current friend becomes jealous.
  • In unhealthy friendships, our child is free to form her own opinions. In unhealthy friendships, one friend sets the standards for acceptable opinions and the other friend feels compelled to agree with those opinions for fear of rejection.
  • In healthy friendships, our child feels nourished and enlivened by the relationship. In unhealthy friendships, our child feels drained and exhausted after being with the friend.
  • In healthy friendships, friends can trust each other and count on one another. In unhealthy friendships, one of the friends may betray confidential conversations, frequently let the other friend down, or lie and manipulate.

I’ll continue to watch for these things, but I think my kids have pretty healthy friendships in terms of the dynamics between them and their friends. I don’t see any big issues with boundaries, trust, or physical and emotional safety.  However, I think their attitude toward their friendships may need some adjusting and that we need to find a better balance between friend-time and alone-time.

Find Your BFF (Balanced Family First)

Kids need space and time to think, to grow, to settle back into themselves after being with others, particularly their peers. You can get the impression from watching t.v. or reading magazines that it is normal for kids to spend every waking hour with their friends, or to talk to them on the phone, text with them, or think about them every minute that they are not physically with them. If children really can’t tolerate being alone, if they become uncomfortable without peers around, there is a problem with that child’s self-perception, emotional adjustment, or relationship with her parents.

Some kids rely on their peers for their sense of identity and meaning, and this is unhealthy. Even though it’s normal for kids to want to be with friends, emotionally healthy children still trust their parents more than anyone else; their parents are their “secure base” even though they enjoy and cherish their friends. They hang out with friends, but they have a natural tendency to return to their parents’ company in order to “check in” emotionally. I need to remind myself that, while I am responsible for helping my kids nourish their friendships, I’m also responsible for helping them build habits that allow for a good balance between friend time and alone time.

I want to remember, too, that in healthy, family-centered homes, the needs of all family members are taken into account. Naturally I prioritize the needs of my children to my own, because they are younger and more vulnerable than me. But my needs count, too. My kids have a legitimate need for friendship but I also have a legitimate need for down time, for refueling. I hope I can do a better job at balancing these conflicting needs. And there is a difference between a legitimate need and a mere desire. I need to facilitate my children’s friendships because this is a real need, but I can meet that need without consenting to all their desires for play dates.

So, when the two middle kids ask to have friends over, I simply have to say no more often. They will not break open and dissolve into a vapor. I need to remind them that the “other stuff” their friends are doing is usually spending time with their families, visiting relatives, doing chores, practicing their musical instruments, working on history projects, figuring out a computer programming conundrum, “stuff” like that.  Their friends possess many opportunities and gifts apart from my children, and my children, the wonderful friends that they are, really want that for their friends. I’m sure their friends want that for them, too.

Image credit: nenetus (freedigitalphotos.com)

Paying Attention During Lent: Encouragement for Exhausted Parents

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In this terrific reflection over on God In All Things, Tony Krzmarzick reflects on how busy he is and how this affects him spiritually. He works intensively as a campus minister all day, then he returns home to face chores, cooking, and other duties. It seems unending to him:

Between work and home, I could spend all my time working on something. All of this work wearies me and leaves me exhausted.”

That’s how I feel sometimes. Between teaching my own children, teaching other folks’ children, engaging in volunteer work in my community and parish and attending to sick family, scraped knees, dirty dishes, and piles of laundry, I could work non-stop 24 hours a day. And I’d still have tasks left over!  Then let’s throw in updating our kitchen, family outings, fun sewing projects, and the many other things that make life delicious but also busier.

Lately I’ve been tired. Sometimes tired and grumpy.  I don’t like it.  I wonder if I am over-committed but everything I do is important; I can’t imagine what I would give up without hurting somebody. But if I’m hurting myself, I won’t be much good to anybody. In my gentle parenting ministry, I often urge parents to find balance and to carve out moments of peace every, single day. I wonder if I’m doing a poor job of following my own advice.

I’m really truly wondering, considering, and praying about this during Lent. Yes, it’s Lent. This is a time when I should be slowing down, taking a Great Pause, to reflect and pray, yet I feel like I’m struggling more than ever to find time for sincere, focused prayer. Lent seems to have got sucked into my lungs and I can’t breathe out. I want my Lent to be meaningful and full of epiphanies, but I’m still waiting. Waiting and a little tired.

Krzmarzick says he finds comfort in the Scripture passage “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest” (Mt.11:28)” but he wonders why he has to hit a wall before he can turn to Christ for rest.

And God wants to give us rest because it is good and holy and necessary, not just when we are tired and weary from our labor, and not just when we need it and can’t go on without taking a break. We need regular rest because when we stop to rest we remember our blessings, and when we feel blessed, we turn to God in praise.

We need rest not just to recover from all that hard work we’re doing, but so that we can pay attention. When we are crazy busy it’s certainly harder to pay attention, especially when we work ourselves into the ground. God needs our attention to reveal himself. Krzmarzick shares that he gives God that attention through quiet meditation. He takes ten minutes to close his eyes, calm his mind, settle his heart, and rest so that he can notice God holding him in his hands.

While I agree with him, two things come to mind.  First, sometimes busy-ness is unavoidable, even the busy-ness that brings us to our knees. Parents with young babies who parent responsively and with great generosity are demonstrating extraordinary courage, patience, and fortitude. It’s hard. Sometimes we don’t sleep enough. Our bodies hurt. But we are doing the right thing. This is very different from the parent who is exhausted because they don’t know how to say “no” or they are over-committed because of pride or greed, however subtle.

Whether our exhaustion is a sign of spiritual trouble depends on several things, especially our motivations. Why are we doing what we’re doing? That’s what we need to ask ourselves if we are nearing an empty tank. Are our choices motivated by love or fear? Are our choices making it easier or harder to love God, others, and ourselves?

Second, we can encounter God’s grace and mercy even amidst the chaos and noise of a house full of kids. Hopefully we can carve out some time every day for contemplative, restful, engaged prayer, but some days that’s a tall order. For some parents, closing their eyes for ten minutes seems unthinkable because they have several little ones crawling on their lap and hugging their legs. But we can still tap into those graces. We can pay attention not just during a ten-minute quiet time on the couch in the morning, but even during our ordinary tasks, even when we are feeling drawn away from God by our busy-ness.

In many ways, God is most evident to me in these real, messy, loud moments. In ordinary exchanges with my children, through the give and take of living together, every now and then grace breaks in and I am surprised, astonished by some small truth, and I realize what a gift my life is, what a gift each moment is with my family. If I can practice looking for God in these moments and preparing my heart for such encounters, I know they will come. Even when I’m running on empty, I can feel God holding me in his hand right there while the kids are wrestling on the sofa or riding their bikes on my lawn or putting beetles on the kitchen counter. I don’t always need complete quiet in order to find rest. To find peace-amidst-chaos, I do have to pay attention, to be fully present in the moment. Sometimes we can be physically present but emotionally and spiritually absent. Our kids can draw us out of this funk.

But the fact remains, we do need rest. Even the very busiest of parents. As Krzmarzick points out, we are made for rest, we do indeed find God in rest. Even Jesus rested. As I consider my Lent so far, I am looking at my calendar and I’m examining my motivations and deep desires. I think my motivations are good, but sometimes I take on tasks because I fear what somebody will think of me if I refuse a request for help. Worse, sometimes I am seeking admiration or approval when I take on a commitment. Sometimes – maybe usually – the good and bad motivations are there at the same time. This is part of my psychological makeup and it stinks. These habits are improving over time with the grace of God, but I will probably always tend to do too much for the wrong reasons at times.

This Lent, I need to breathe out and I feel I can’t quite do it. I’m stuck on inhale. Sometimes this kind of unrest occurs when we are in a state of spiritual expectation and transition. I’m trying to find a Lenten release, but whether that feels like I’m suffocating or just waiting in expectation depends entirely on my motivations and my relationship with God.  Am I avoiding him or moving toward him? Am I seeking him or self-seeking? God is working on my heart, asking me to look at my choices and my assumptions about what I need and what my family needs to thrive.

I will continue to wait, to consider these things, and to pay attention with God’s assistance. And, of course, part of that journey should include the rest that Krzmarzick is talking about.

It’s Okay to “Just” Be a Mom

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Every so often, it seems I am compelled to test my limits–to see how much I can cram into my schedule before I break. And, before I know it, I’m a harried mess, wondering why my household, and my mind, are falling apart.

As moms, we feel so much pressure. And not just from the local news anchor who’s back on the job after six weeks of maternity leave or from the working mom next door who appears to “do it all”. It’s so easy to start comparing myself to other stay-at-home moms–to feel like I’m the only mom in the whole school who’s never been a room mother or volunteered for recess duty or served on the PTO board. And so I take on a little more. I try to do anything that will make people see that I’m doing something. Pride threatens to take over, I forget who I am, and I place too much value on human esteem.

We all have different talents, different temperaments, and different thresholds for the various stressors in life. I’m not the working mom next door. I’m not the ten o’clock news anchor. I’m not even the PTO board member. I don’t have to save the world, but I am responsible for raising a part of the future of the world. And so it’s up to me to know myself–to realize what is required of me as the heart of my home and keep that as my primary focus.

As an introvert, I need time alone to recharge. I need quality prayer time every day. I need time to breathe in the sanctuary of my own home, or my stress level quickly elevates and radiates out to my family. As the heart of the home, everyone I live with has a finger on my pulse. Whether I like it or not, even my most subtle mood changes have drastic effects on the atmosphere in my home. Staying healthy, both physically and mentally, is never just about me. My state of being directly affects my husband and all five of my children. My state of being is the example around which our family life revolves. My state of being is my family’s guidepost, for better or for worse.

My children are only young once. I have a very small window of time to guide them in the direction that I hope they will go. They need a mother who is present and unharried (at least most of the time), a household that is free of chaos, and a schedule that is centered on family bonds and the love of Christ.

It’s okay to “just” be a mom. It’s okay to spend days doing laundry, baking, and jumping in leaf piles with my children. It’s okay to say no to most outside activities so I’ll have time to waste time with my family.

Making choices that support these values is not always easy. Sometimes we meet people who don’t understand, who think we spoil our children, or who think we simply aren’t “doing” much. But “what is of human esteem is an abomination in the sight of God.” (Luke 16:15)

God sees every load of laundry, every diaper changed, every wound caressed. He sees us organizing the snow boots, baking banana bread, and making snowmen out of play dough. He knows that the moments we take to breathe and care for ourselves are moments that will allow us to give more love to our family. And He knows we’re doing something. He knows we’re doing the most important thing. And, in His eyes, we are esteemed.

Image credit: Vlado (freedigitalphotos.com)

Who Mothers Mommy?

Maternal Kiss (Mary Cassatt)Motherhood is a profound blessing and should be deep source of meaning for women, but a mom also faces sleepless nights, strained schedules, and the competing needs of her kids, her spouse, her extended family, her community, and finally HERSELF! What allows some moms to thrive and to find deep satisfaction in motherhood despite the inevitable challenges while others do not thrive emotionally?

Two researchers at Arizona State University asked this question and in a newly-released study they cite 4 key factors that protect mom’s well-being and sense of satisfaction:

1.  Unconditional Acceptance

Moms who can say, “I feel seen and loved for the person I am at my core” do better in motherhood than moms who feel their value depends on their performance or appearance.  Every mom needs people who will allow them to be honest about their failures, make amends, find new hope and direction, and still be cherished for the unique, unrepeatable persons they are. And this happens to be the model of the love, mercy, and reconciliation that Christ offers us.

2.  Feeling Comforted When Needed

Moms need to be able to say, “When I am deeply distressed, I feel comforted in the way I need it.”  When you are a mom and you feel distressed it is very scary. You have these little people in your care and their very lives depend on you. We all need somebody who will really listen to us and then comfort us in the way WE need when we are struggling so we can get a little perspective on the problem. Sometimes that means somebody will just listen to us without trying to fix the problem — we just need emotional comfort.  At other times we need them to fix it in some way – perhaps through physical relief (a nap, a chance to get out of the house for an hour to clear our head).  Only somebody with some level of empathy will be capable of tuning into a mother’s real need. Without this capacity for attunement, the other person will tend to do what they think we need or what they would want themselves.

3.  Authenticity in Relationships

Feeling like you have to put on a show all the time is really depressing — literally. All mothers will have moments when her ideal for herself as a mom does not match up with what’s on her mind. You love your children but at some point you will probably feel depleted or desperate or even downright irrational. When mothers feel like they have to be perfect around their friends and family, when they can’t be honest with anyone about what they are feeling and thinking, they are at a much higher risk for depression. When you can’t be authentic, you cannot thrive.

Once when my third child was a newborn and my two older kids were still very young, my husband went on an extended work trip. At one point I was talking to him on the phone and I had not slept in two days because my older kids would not go to bed and the baby was still waking every 2 to 3 hours. I felt desperate and helpless! Well, I told him how I was really feeling not what I thought he wanted to hear. I was starting to feel a little kooky and I was not coping well. I was at the if-these-kids-don’t-go-to-sleep-I’m-going-to-smack-them point. When I shared with my husband how I felt, he cut his meeting short, got on an airplane, and came home. He didn’t shame me or say “what the heck is wrong with you?” or pat me on the head with a “you are so strong you can handle anything.”  He came home and I went to bed and then I felt better. I am grateful that I could be honest with him about my REAL feelings even though they fell short of what I hoped for myself as a mom. Because I had that freedom, it allowed him to comfort me in the way I most needed — physical relief (see number 2 above).

4. Friendship Satisfaction

Moms do better emotionally in motherhood when they have a few friends in their lives who can give and receive love.  I think particularly for women, the quality of our friendships has a deep impact on our well-being.

The bottom line: nurturing adult relationships keeps a mom “happy, healthy, and able to give or herself.” And you will notice that all four factors are essential for a child’s flourishing as well!  Children need unconditional acceptance, they need to know they will be comforted when distressed, they need to know they can be authentic in their relationship with their parents, and they need people in their lives who are emotionally free enough to give and receive love. In many ways, we cannot give to our children what we don’t have. So, if our adults relationships are impoverished, we need to find a way to build up the love and support we need in order to love and support our children.

Not the Whole Story . . .

I think this research is very important and reminds us that God created us for community. I would add, though, that clearly we can identity other factors that set satisfied mothers apart from those who suffer.  In particular, many times our perception of ourselves as mothers impacts our ability to experience joy and satisfaction. Our culture doesn’t value mothering in the way it deserves. If we feel we need to live up to the world’s definition of success, we can struggle with our identity and sense of meaning. If we perceive motherhood as a drudgery, a drag, then we will bring that perception with us into the inevitable demands of motherhood. The first factor in the study sort of hints at this – we need unconditional acceptance. But I think we need people in our lives who value us not only as unique, unrepeatable persons, but also as mothers in particular — who recognize the unique gifts that mothers bring to their families that nobody else can give.

Hanging by My Fingernails

Before I had the courage to let go of my whole way of living, two inner images rose up in my mind as symbols of my controlling behavior.

When my family was still young and I had only seven children from twelve-years-old down to a newborn, I earnestly strove to raise the best children I could. Yet all my effort was actually hindering their development because my anxiety and control acted like a barrier, a prison around them. I was, in fact, preventing my children’s inner, natural development into well-balanced, creative people.

broken-wagon-wheel-1405148000B82I did not take subtle hints, so a powerful inner image rose up from my subconscious which symbolized what I was actually doing by refusing to let go of control.

First I saw an ocean and a tiny black dot in the water. Slowly the image grew larger till I was face to face with a huge octopus.

The scene switched and now seven tentacles wrapped around each of my children with my husband in the eighth. All of them were grey, limp almost lifeless.

I suddenly realized that I was, in fact, the octopus; I was squeezing the life out of my family.

In this inner vision, a sword appeared in a blaze of light and severed each tentacle one by one. The severed tentacle shriveled and fell off each child. As soon as each one was set free, they began dancing and laughing in the sunshine. Soon all seven were joyfully playing.

The eighth tentacle was wrapped tightly around my husband. The kids stopped playing and kneeled on the ground, weeping, desperately pulling and tugging the tentacle but to no avail. Suddenly, in a flash of light, the sword of truth cut through the tentacle, my husband was released and came back to life.

Yet even after this appalling self-revelation, I still could not let go of control.

It was like I stood on the hub of a wagon wheel with my large family balanced on the rim. I crouched on the hub, frantically turning this way and that, grabbing all the broken spokes, desperate to hold the crumbling structured together.

I realized that I had to let go of this futile sense of responsibility and control but I was afraid to stop, afraid that one moment of inattention would cause my entire family to tumble down into the abyss.

I was trapped.

Yet, I realized that once again, my tension, my control acted like a wall, shutting out all life. My sincere concern and earnest self-sacrifice actually magnified everyone’s brokenness by freezing everyone and everything.

It took years, but I finally surrendered control. The broken spokes were instantly repaired. The kids and my husband started smiling. I was free. We were free.

I read a quote that said the worst sin against another human being beside hate and murder is trying to control and manipulate them because you are stealing their real identity, molding them into a false image. Sometimes we just need to “let go” of the things that we worry about (i.e. our children, loved ones, or family members). When we are able to do that, we (and the people we care about) can then truly experience the freedom of living!

The Care and Keeping of YOU

This summer I’ve made a special effort to keep our family schedule light, because I have learned the hard way that jam-packed days leave my kids grumpy and me drained.  But even with our open calendar, I am finding myself over-doing things: clearing out our homeschool room, repainting the house, hosting play dates, helping a son cope with chronic migraines, and going to Radio Shack with yet another shopping list for robot parts. There’s nothing wrong with any of this, but on Friday I noticed that I was much too tired and depleted.

This morning I appreciated this reminder from Tim Muldoon over at Ignatian Spirituality:

[O]ur care for other persons must not neglect the care of that one person whom we will know our entire lives:  ourselves.  For those who practice care for others, it can be easy to neglect the self.  Parenting, I find, can elicit from me patterns of self-giving which are not really sustainable.  Losing sleep, always seeking the good of the other, spending time on what the other needs instead of what I need—all these I tend to write off as so many types of sacrificial love that I can offer up to God.

Does that sound familiar?  We simply cannot survive parenthood without the regular practice of self-care. We really have to look at it as part of a spiritual practice, because without caring for our bodies, minds, and spirits, we will be crippled in doing the work God  has for us do.

The smaller our kids are, the harder it is to practice self-care, but it’s  all the more important.  How we recharge or refuel is a very personal matter. Writer Holly Pierlot takes regular “mother sabbaticals” during which she goes out alone for an afternoon to pray or just think.  This is a great suggestion and parents should not feel guilty about needing time away from their kids to get their brains back in order.  However, many of us lack the luxury to do this regularly or we just don’t want to leave our small babies for extended periods.

Even if we enjoy personal sabbaticals, we need to practice self-care more frequently than a day out can give us.  Muldoon suggests “taking long naps, reading a challenging essay, physical exercise, foreign travel, walks in nature, conversation with friends, a glass of wine on a beautiful lanai, or climbing a mountain.”  What strikes me about Muldoon’s suggestions is that I could do just about all these things with my family around me.  (Except perhaps reading a challenging essay . . . )

Over the weekend, instead of painting baseboard, Philip and I took the kids hiking.  The hike was absolutely beautiful, but also physically challenging.

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I initially viewed this outing as “for my kids,” but I see in retrospect that I was also practicing self-care.  Seeing a new place, experiencing nature’s strange silence, and feeling my muscles working hard to carry me forward renewed my spirit as I prepared for the week. I think I needed a change of scenery – literally.  This week my head is less cob-webbed, praying is easier, and my imagination is percolating.

I’m thinking this afternoon about “mini-sabbaticals.”  Instead of going off for a day alone every two weeks, why not carve out thirty minutes to an hour every day when we can be grown-ups doing grown-up stuff?  This may take the cooperation of our spouse if we have very small children, but it’s worth considering.  When my kids were all little I instituted an afternoon quiet hour during which everyone — babies, toddlers, older kids alike — remained in their beds.  The older kids were required to stay in bed, too, but they could read or play with quiet toys.  I explained that Mommy was having a quiet hour, too, that we all needed to let our minds and bodies rest so we could hear and play better for the rest of the day.  During that time, I think I initially took a nap, but later I just made fresh coffee, prayed, and read in complete quiet.  I think I really did hear and play better after that!

I’m not sure if I need the afternoon quiet hour again, but I’ll make an effort to pay attention to the signals that I need to shift course.  Maybe I can forget the walls that need painting, say “not today” to the new robot shopping list, or look for a new hiking trail.

When “Me Time” Becomes “You and Me Time”

Last week, I was given a rare opportunity to drive alone. Yes, alone. I could hardly wait. I only had to pick up dinner and stop by the post office, but it would be a half hour to treasure.

But as I opened the car door, I heard the front door to the house open, too. “Mommy, where are you going?” my five year old asked.

“Just to pick up dinner,” I called back.

“Oh, is it quick?”

“Yes,” I reassured him, assuming he just wanted to make certain I wouldn’t be gone long.

“Oh, good,” he answered. “Can I come, too, then?”

Mother and Child, Picasso (1922)

Mother and Child, Picasso (1922)

Oops. Question misunderstood. So, he’d been hoping to come, and was merely ensuring I wouldn’t be dragging him on an endless run of errands. I hesitated. This was the only “me time” I’d had in the past week. My quiet-in-the-car, no-kids, “me time”. As with most moms, I sorely needed it. I only have two children, but one of those is a ten-month old who’s still pretty much glued to my body. Though I love her immensely, I looked forward to just a few stolen moments alone. Just a little quiet time to recharge. After all, during His ministry, even Jesus sought a little time apart from the crowds (Mt 14:13).

But, how could I look at my son and tell him no, that I didn’t want him to come along? He looked so hopeful on the front step, cradling his shoes in his little hands. And, though seeking a little alone time, wasn’t Jesus still interrupted in order to care for others? And didn’t He oblige? (Mt 14:14)

“Sure,” I answered, “Go tell Daddy you’re coming with me.”

“Goody!” he yelled gleefully.

I was happy for him, but what had I just done? Why can’t I ever just allow myself some time alone? As a stay-at-home mom, I parent 24-7. With a husband who’s at work from before the sun rises until about an hour before the kids’ bedtime, I parent alone for much of the day. I should have suffered no guilt for giving myself a half hour of silence.

Instead, here I was, no longer alone but with a little boy in tow. And that little boy was anything but quiet. He was in a questioning mood. A talking mood. And without his little sister babbling, squealing or crying away in the seat next to him, I understood why he was so giddy and chatty.

Because, for him, this wasn’t “me time”, it was “you and me time”. For him, it was a quiet car ride where the only noise was of a conversation between himself and the mom who is always so busy with another, needier child. For him, these were moments when he had no one to be second to, no one to talk over, no one to compete with for Mom’s attention.

And he soaked up these moments. He chatted about things we’d never talked about before. Nothing substantial, just little talks about why it’s good to get a low score in golf (a question that arose as we passed a golf course), or what type of swing set Daddy should build in the backyard (a thought that occurred as we passed a yard with a really great swing set), or musings on what exactly God does in heaven all day (prompted by my remark on the beauty of the sun rays streaming through the clouds).

Seconds into the drive, I was glad I wasn’t alone. Because though I hadn’t realized it, I needed this time, too. I needed to reconnect with my son who’s always such a great helper with his baby sister, but who doesn’t get much time alone with me anymore. I needed to return, even for a few moments, to the days when it was just the two of us for much of the day. Because he’s getting older and slipping a little further away from me every day, and these uninterrupted minutes together are growing rarer.

Because motherhood, I’ve learned this past year, is such a delicate balancing act. We juggle everything from time with our husband, to time with each child, to time tending to friends and relatives. We balance schedules and checkbooks and appointments and meals. And in this daily juggling act, we risk making our loved ones feel less set apart as someone truly special to us and more like an item to be taken care of on our checklist.

Or, worse, a hindrance to our “me time”.

My son and I needed our simple half hour together. Though it was nothing exciting, we had fun buying stamps, mailing letters, and waiting for our order to come up at the pizza place. In these moments, we were blessed with something we both desperately needed. Not “me time”. It was something better. It was “you and me” time.

3 Benefits of Family Movie Night

movie night

 

On more than one occasion our Holy Father has urged parents to “waste time with your children.” I think we need his wise guidance.  Some of us may be sacrificing family time because we worry or assume that if our kids aren’t busy with extra-curricular activities or our own calendars aren’t filled every hour of the day, we’ll all be left behind. We need to give ourselves permission to leave whole days open for “doin’ nothin’” with our kids.

In the Cameron-Smith home, one of our favorite ways to waste time together is with a family movie night!  I talked about this recently on Greg & Lisa Popcak’s radio program More2Life.  Their show was about ways to connect meaningfully with our children and movie night was my 2 cents.  Nothing signals my brain that it’s time to relax than when my 8-year-old grabs the popcorn maker and the other kids start dragging out their pillows and blankets so they can get cozy in front of the television. Aside from movie night being just good ol’ fun, here are three practical benefits:

1.  Fosters communication between kids and parents

Laughing and joking around together during and after a movie builds rapport and a sense of solidarity. Movies also provide opportunities to communicate with our kids about morality and the consequences of our choices. Every story, including the story in a movie, has a basic conflict that the main character must face or resolve. After the movie, ask your kids what they think the main problem was in the story. How did the protagonist try to solve their problem? Was she/he successful? Ask your child how she might have done things differently.  We ask these questions in a non-judgmental, casual way so that everyone feels comfortable joining in the conversation.

2.  Provides an opportunity for us to train our children in compassion and empathy

Human beings are born with a capacity for empathy, but it’s only a capacity: children need particular experiences in childhood in order for that capacity to unfold.  One of these experiences is gentle mentoring from parents about what other people are thinking and feeling. Movies provide an easy, fun way to do this mentoring. When a person in the movie is frightened, sad, or angry we can talk to our kids about that character’s perspective and experience.  We can ask questions like, “What do you think John was feeling when he couldn’t find his dog?”, “I wonder if Jane was sad or frustrated when her friend called her a name?”  This gives kids an opportunity to exercise their empathy muscles in a non-threatening way.

3.  Requires us to define our family values (if we want to use media intentionally)

Did you know that the Church has actually affirmed that movies are “a gift from God springing from human intelligence and industry” (Miranda Prorsus)?  Like any gift, movie making is a talent that can be used for good or for destruction. Some movies are clearly inappropriate for family viewing, but beyond the clear stinkers, we have to practice prudence to discern which movies are right for our particular family.

If we can define clearly what our family values are – even write them out formally in a mission statement – we will be way ahead of the game when trying to pick out good movies.  When you know “what you are about” it helps guide discussions about which movies to watch.   Are the movies we want to watch strengthening or weakening our shared values? Every movie has a “bad guy” or some struggle: what is the underlying message in the movie about the dignity of human beings, how we should treat one another in conflict, how we respond to those who are weaker than ourselves?   After you watch a particular movie, talk with your kids about which Christian virtues were present or lacking in particular characters and their choices.

Don’t feel limited to watching only Christian movies. Some movies we might have dismissed on the surface have proven to be very meaningful and surprisingly edifying for my family. For us, old classic movies often have timeless stories about the struggle between good and evil, the little guy struggling to rise above bad circumstances, or an outsider proving his value to his new community. Ty Burr’s book Best Old Movies for Families is absolutely essential for every movie-loving family.

Because we have a wide age-range of kids in our home, we try to pick things that appeal to everyone, which is a challenge. In addition to classic movies, we’ve enjoyed all the Wallace and Grommit movies by Nick Park, Benji, and the original Herbie the Love Bug movies. If you’re looking for good movie suggestions, check out www.decentfilms.com – it’s hosted by a Catholic film critic.

Let us know some of your favorite family-friendly films!

If you’d like to listen to my segment with Dr. Greg and Lisa, here is the audio file for “Family Connections Jan 30, 2015”.  My bit is about 25 minutes into the show, but the whole show was great!

 

Traditions: A Pleasant Tie that Binds Us by Kassie Ritman

“After our faith, tradition is one of the greatest gift we can share with our children. They tether our memories and comfort us alongside the liturgical waymarks of our years together.”

As Christians, we are bound together as believers in Jesus. As Catholics, our faith holds us up with the everlasting grace and providence of the sacraments. Within our own homes, traditions are a pleasant tie binding us together as a family unit. We all have our own rich family traditions; belonging to us in whole or borrowed from others and refashioned into something we’ve made our own. After our faith, tradition is one of the greatest gift we can share with our children. They tether our memories and comfort us alongside the liturgical waymarks of our years together.

In my regular blog posts I alternate between writing about writing, and writing specifically to preserve family stories. One of the ways I’ve found to be most useful for gleaning stories for my readers and from my own relatives is to start conversations about traditions.

*Why do we always have Cherry Delight on the holiday table?

*Remember when we all had to leave our ties on until Dad got the perfect family photo in front of the bushes at St Agnes after Easter?

*When I was a kid, the littlest one got to lead the way down the stairs each Christmas morning, we nearly trampled poor Joe every year!

advent 2013 pic 1Think about your own family and the traditions that were either planned or developed in a more “organic” manner. How precious are these memories to you? As an icebreaker, how many of them can you share with relatives you haven’t seen for a long time? The years melt away once the beautiful repetition we call tradition begins.

I believe it is within our nature as Catholics to crave and seek the comfort of an ordered way of looking upon our lives. We cross ourselves with fingers dipped lightly into holy water as we enter into a room anywhere across the globe, look past a large table and up to see a crucifix and know, because of these symbols and traditions, that we are home. The language may be foreign, the setting unfamiliar, but we are assured there will be an order to this time, a set pattern of expectations and actions. A shower of graces is at hand.

Recently, I’ve run into a couple of bloggers who are doing something cool. I’m talking about preserving family stories. These clever authors are doing it “as it happens,” starting with babyhood for their grandbaby or own little one!

Longtime blogger Locksands welcomed her new grandchild with a round of thoughts describing the world, and the day, and the people she was being born into the arms of in contrast to her own years here. It was fabulous! What a terrific idea, certainly a way to go over and above presenting a blank and perfunctory “Baby’s 1st Year” album.

Dorian and her Mama are doing a bang-up job of documenting her little, adorable, wanna-smoosh-and-kiss-those-fleshy-baby-cheeks days via blogging as a team.

Here in “Mom-land,” I have a long standing tradition (let’s count here…my oldest is now in the 22nd grade…yes…I’ve done it now for 23 years). Annually, on the first day of school, I’ve made my Sweeties stand in front of the same bush at the front of our house to have a photo taken. For the sake of identifying the grade level, they’ve been directed to hold up enough fingers to correspond with the grade they were about to start… that part didn’t always work. Kindergarten was a zero made with their fingers to look like an “okay” sign. Freshman year of high school, we reverted back to one and worked our way back up to a four finger showing for senior year. As college started, again, the single finger for freshman year and so on. Siblings were added and absent from the photos as they aged in and out of the school years.

One summer we moved to a new house just before school started. Along with the excitement of their new rooms, the kids thought they would also be gifted with an end to the annual “photos and fingers” ritual. Sorry kids, a new crop of photo-shrubs came with the new home!

Some years the group was excited and compliant. Other years they were surly and down right grouchy. In many shots they seem to be cringing with embarrassment because cars were passing by on the street.

“What if someone sees us?!” they growled into my camera. But, kid after kid–year after year–Mom won. I got my photo!

My goddaughter’s parents came up with an exceptional idea for photos. Recently, we all enjoyed the fruits their dedication at their daughter’s wedding. Brit was born on the 22nd of the month. Starting in the first moments of her arrival and continuing monthly then, on each subsequent 22nd through her second birthday they filmed her for a few minutes. With imperfect (at times they missed by a week or so) but amazing amount of diligence, they were able to select a quick little 15-30 second snippet of video showcasing who she was on that particular day and what she was doing. First Communion, birthday candles on big pony princess cakes, Christmas mornings by the tree ringed knee deep in gifts we all cleverly edited in. Sort of like the bush in our “first day of school” photo shoots, their backdrops changed over the years. So did the video recording equipment and format. Eventually siblings started to appear in “cameos” on the “22nd” video clips– not to worry though, each of the younger brothers and sisters also had their own day of the month for “stardom.

They stuck with the task, keeping up with the giant (and often expensive) leaps technology took over the years. They had to constantly upgrade and transfer their precious moments from 8mm to Beta to VHS to digital and on to the “Cloud” and YouTube. The payoff came when we were all teared up seeing this near 30 year compilation roll by on a special screen at the newlywed’s reception. Certainly an awesome payoff for the proud in-house paparazzi.

My beautiful bride of a goddaughter was truly moved. I don’t think she ever considered that Mom and Dad were constantly organizing and preserving all those silly film clips into a larger work.

It’s never too early or too late to try something new or to revive a treasured custom from times long past. You can use these examples with your own talents to keep the memories alive via the loving ties of tradition . Whether you write, blog, take photos, share recipes and the stories behind them, or choose something completely different it will be appreciated (eventually). The real treasure here is in showing a connection from our past and then helping usher it into the future–as effortlessly as fingers blessed by gliding through holy water.

About Kassie

kassie ritmanKassie Ritman is a writer who happens to love family history. She authors a how-to blog and hosts workshops for others interested in recording life events and personal histories of family. Kassie lives with her husband, 3 kids, a granddaughter and a ridiculously unaware-of-his canine-condition Golden Retriever named Levi. She is also a regular columnist for the International Society of Family History Writers and Editors, a reviewer for Tuscany Press, and holds membership in The Catholic Writer’s Guild, and Indiana Genealogist’s Society. Her work has appeared on True Words Journal, Story Circle Network, and will soon be on Flying Island and the 2014 SCN Anthology (releasing January). See her blog at Maybe someone should write that down…

The Art of Table Talk (with Kids)

“Too often we have a hard time with real dialogue, because we aren’t really very interested in what the other person is saying or who they are. We’re waiting for them shut up so we can get our point in.”

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, this is perhaps a good time to review the art of making conversation at the dinner table.  I talked about this last week with Greg and Lisa Popcak on their radio program More2Life.  The topic of the show was “Talk to Me”:  the Popcaks offered listeners some great tips on communicating effectively.  If you want to listen to the whole show here it is; my bit starts about twenty minutes into the show.

I’ll focus on grown-ups making conversation with children or teenagers, but these tips apply equally to conversations with just about anybody.  Here are three things you’ll need if you want to become (or if you want your child to become) a great “deipnosophist” (somebody skilled in table talk):

1.  Take an interest in the other person in your table conversation (yes, even if it’s a kid!)

Listen: The most important element in great table conversation isn’t the talking; it’s the listening. Too often we have a hard time with real dialogue, because we aren’t really very interested in what the other person is saying or who they are. table talkWe’re waiting for them shut up so we can get our point in.  I know this only because I am guilty of doing it all the time!

Ask questions: Be curious about what your child or young guest is saying at the table. Repeat back to them what you’re hearing them say, even if you think you disagree with them.  You may discover something new and fascinating about your young conversation partner!

Let a problem simmer: When a child or teen is struggling aloud with a problem over dinner, we often have an urge to announce a solution immediately. When we do this, the conversation ends. Foster a child’s problem solving and speaking skills by guiding them through potential options or points of view, allowing them to explore and weigh solutions.

Becoming more attuned in our conversations at the dinner table not only makes the meal more pleasant, but helps us become better Christians, too.  Theology of the Body affirms that we are made for communion and self-giving love, and this requires the ability to both reveal ourselves and really see the other person.  The dinner table is the perfect place for families to practice this together, especially with kiddos.

2.  Allow time for real conversation to unfold

You (or your child) won’t learn the art of conversation by taking a class. You learn it by doing it with real people, and kids will learn it by doing it with people they love and trust.

When I first met my husband, one of the things I loved about him was the way he could talk about just about any subject – politics, literature, religion – in depth, respectfully, and with passion. When I visited his family in New Zealand it all made sense. His family not only talks a lot while they are eating, but the sit around after dinner talking – sometimes for hours. I am grateful Barb & Ric prioritized table talk, because now I’m married to somebody who is helping our children enjoy it too.

We are all busy these days, often for good reason, but perhaps we can prioritize table talk at least one day a week. Ensure you aren’t rushed during dinner and allow time for debates and deep conversations to linger.

3.  Have something to talk about:  conversation starters

Some families have tons to talk about, but if you’re a quiet family and need some help getting started, plan conversation starters ahead of time. Have a basket of questions in the middle of the table. You can find conversation starter questions on-line or buy them (“Chat Packs” and “Table Topics” are bundled cards you can purchase), but you can also just make them up yourself. We featured conversations in two issues of Tender Tidings last year. You can find them here and here. The basic idea is to ask very open-ended questions: “What do you like to smell and why?”; “If you could have dinner with anybody in history, who would it be and why?”.

Another idea: If your children are older, read a newspaper column aloud at the beginning of dinner and then get their opinions about it. You can do something similar with poems. I’ve read a poem or saints story aloud to my children at lunch for many years.  Sometimes they just think about it, and, to be frank, occasionally they seem distracted, but often they want to know more about what the poem or story means.  A conversation begins.

Happy chatting!

Image credit:  Monkey Business Images (thinkstockphoto.com)

Giving Children the Gift of Gratitude

A version of this article appeared originally in Tender Tidings Fall 2012.

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, this is a great time to share with our children the importance of gratitude.

thanksgivingThanksgiving, after all, is about far more than turkeys and pumpkin pie. It’s about offering thanks to God for his unfailing bounty and protection, especially in our time of need.

So, how do we pass on an attitude of gratitude to our children? We can begin by praying for a grateful spirit ourselves, so that we can be better witnesses to our children.  We can remind ourselves that gratitude is always coupled with the virtue of humility: We recognize that we need the assistance of God and others for our physical sustenance and emotional well-being. Nobody is an island of independence no matter how much they might want to believe it. We humans were created for interdependence.

When parents embrace a lifestyle of contentment and generosity, our children will learn intuitively the meaning of gratitude.  As a family, we can live out our commitment to growing in gratitude in tangible ways. We can choose to be content with what we already have, rather than falling into the trap of always looking to the next thing we want to possess or accumulate. How much bigger can televisions get, right?  We don’t need things to be happy. Ultimately, only God himself can satisfy our longings and desires.

Perhaps these weeks before Thanksgiving can be devoted to simplicity in our home: no more new stuff. We can use the money we save to bless those in need. Perhaps on Thanksgiving Day (or the day after) we can take new toys or a needed item to a local shelter, hospital, or other charity that’s devoted to reducing the suffering of the sick and needy.

And, of course, God has blessed us with more than material things. He has blessed us with knowledge, skills, and time. We demonstrate our gratitude for these gifts by using them to bless and aid others, which glorifies God.  We use our knowledge, skills, and time to nourish our children — body, mind, and spirit — in whatever circumstances the day presents, with an attitude and heart of love and mercy.  We do the same for those outside our family.  When we have small children it’s hard to commit gobs of time to others, but God will let you know what needs to be done and whether you’re the one to do it.   While you’re watching a movie with your family, knit a sweater for the babe of a young mother.  Do a load of laundry for the same mother while you do your own laundry.   Share your parenting wisdom with other parents at a play date.  Share with your children what you are doing and why, and invite them to participate in the work.

The bottom line is that by watching us and working alongside us, our children will begin to reflect an attitude of gratitude, too.  They will become increasingly conscious of the gifts they already have and they will eventually see that sitting still in that consciousness — resisting the modern tendency to seek ever more, bigger, better — is a gift in itself that they give back to God.

Here are few books to get a conversation going with your kids about gratitude.

Family Story Hour

I’m Thankful Each Day by P.K. Hallinan (toddlers to age 6)

Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts (preschool to age 8)

My Book of Thanks by B.G. Hennessey (ages 5 to 9)

Mary Magdalene: A Woman Who Showed Her Gratitude by Marlee Alex (preschool to age 8)

Raising Children Is Not a Default Chore

“Raising children is not a default chore for women who failed in the world of power and wealth.”

I am about to tell you something which goes against what your education has taught you to think and do.  Since preschool, adults have pushed you to excel, to rise above your peers.  My generation has groomed you for success, to get into the best universities and snatch the most prized careers. Well, it is nice to have confidence, to fulfil your dreams and have a sense of satisfaction in your chosen field of work, but that will not make you happy.

Just take a look at the generation that has gone before you. The midlife crisis is a testament to the failure of a life focused on career advancement to the exclusion of family.  Men and women bemoan the fact that they did not have time for nurturing and loving their spouse or children. All too often family life crumbles to ashes, sacrificed on the altar of success.  As for childcare, society relegates it to women who are often treated as second class citizens.

download (1)I want to yell out as loudly as I can, “Raising children is not a default chore for women who failed in the world of business, power and wealth.”  Who raises our children is important because exactly how YOU, the next generation, raise your children will directly influence the kind of society that they in turn create.

Do you want to live in a world focused only on the ruthless accumulation of wealth?  Will you consciously create a race of humans who are shallow, cold, and cynical about relationships, family, and love?  Do you want children who are more comfortable texting you, their own parents, than speaking with you face to face in a warm, loving way?

Family is crucial; it is the foundation of society.  Now I see my own adult children beginning their young families and it touches my heart to know how much they value family as well.  Just after his daughter’s birth, my son turned to his dad and said, “Dad, this is the best thing that I have ever done in my life.”

And, a year later, as his little daughter lay sleeping on his chest, my son said, ”Now I know why you and Dad had so many kids.”