Dating Advice for a New World

Almost 13 years ago, I met my husband and officially stepped out of the dating game. It’s a good thing, too, because I was never very good at dating.

I have always really enjoyed socializing with men, but found intentional dating emotionally confusing and frustrating. I have never been good at communicating my feelings. I have always been awkward in intimate situations, emotional or otherwise. And I have never been particularly interested in the game of “attraction.” In fact I think that, were I ever left a widow, I’ll probably die single. I’m not sure you could pay me enough to jump back in that game.

Some of my friends don’t have the luxury of sitting back and thanking God the dating game is over for them. Some of you are still in the thick of it and, from what I hear and observe, it’s a very frustrating time to be in the thick of it. The world of dating in 2018 seems a lot more complicated than it did 15 years ago.

From my vantage point:
Young people seem far too emotionally immature and over-sexualized. Older people seem far too casual in their long-term, unmarried monogamy. Everybody’s got baggage. Everybody’s been married before or has kids already.

Add to these complications the recent “woke-ness” of our culture about issues of sexual harassment and assault which, for all the ways it has empowered victims, has also created a debilitating kind of social anxiety about relationships between men and women. I would imagine that people everywhere–men, especially–just don’t know anymore what is and is not permissible in casual relationships, and what, exactly, constitutes “expressed consent” in intimate relationships.

The nuanced dance of flirting and the thrill of the pursuit is over, my friends. Things went and got complicated.

Where does that leave us (you)? Well, I said I was no good at dating. But I did date. And I watched my friends date. And I’m watching my friends date now. And I have four children who will, one day, want to date.

So whether you’re trying to find a mate or trying to be found–or if you’re my child reading this in 10 years–I have a few suggestions for how to survive this complicated (new) world of dating without losing your mind.

Learn to date without expectations for intimacy.

I think it’s time to reintroduce casual dating to the world, especially to the Church. And by “casual,” I mean truly casual–not casual in public and intimate in private. I mean something like meeting up for a concert or for a cup of coffee or inviting a friend to a work event as your date. I mean two adult people spending one-on-one time alone doing normal things that normal adults do to keep each other company and to interact in the real world together and to have conversations like normal people do so they can get to know each other better.

I think it’s perfectly appropriate to casually date more than one person, at least for a short time. But casual things don’t usually last forever and it takes a lot of maturity to know when it’s time to either move on or ramp up the intentionality of the relationship. This will happen naturally if you get more interested in one person than the other(s), but it might need a little help. This is where being an effective communicator comes into play.

Learn how to express intentions.

Communicating feelings and intentions is hard, at least for me. But there comes a point at which both people in the relationship will start to wonder “what’s actually going on here,” and somebody needs to take the first step to define things. Especially if you’ve introduced any physical intimacy.

My husband and I spent hours upon hours together for six months before we ever actually touched or had a defining conversation about our relationship. We talked about everything in heaven and on earth except our actual relationship. And it was confusing and it did seem like it took forever to have that conversation and I did cry and pray over our relationship many times during those six months. But I’m so glad I didn’t force the conversation because if I had, he probably wouldn’t have been ready.

Neither my husband nor I were interested in diving into a long-term relationship that didn’t end in marriage. We had both been there before and walked away heartbroken and wanted to avoid going there again. We used the term “courting” to define the next stage in our relationship because we had a goal in mind–marriage–and we fully intended to walk away if, at any point, marriage wasn’t going to happen. It was a decision to dive in and pursue something other than just a good time together.

I can’t tell you how long it should take to go from “we’re more than friends” to “let’s get married.” It took just over a year for us. And it was an intense year with a lot of hard questions and hard conversations and a time or two when I honestly thought it was all over and he was walking away. It may take you six months or it may take two years. (But I think it’s safe to say that if it takes five years, you’re probably doing something wrong or you’re doing it with the wrong person.)

Learn how to walk away.

If things aren’t working, it’s okay to walk away.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, for most married people, there was another person before their spouse, someone that they were head over heels for or someone who they thought was The One. Learning to walk away from a good thing, when you know it’s not the right or best thing, is harder than hard. It’s heart-breaking. But when the irreconcilable differences are big enough to cause recurrent problems or when, at the end of the day, you’re really just not that into each other, it’s okay to walk away. It can be done graciously and without irreparable emotional damage, especially if you learn to do this before jumping into bed together or tagging along on the family vacation to Jamaica. Again, honest (and kind) communication works wonders for this sort of thing.

Pursue marriage.

I don’t believe in the Perfect Mate myth, so I am comfortable encouraging people to date for fun and to get to know each other before becoming exclusive. But I also believe that long-term non-married monogamy is a lame substitution for marriage.

Marriage is good. It’s good for you and your spouse, good for children, good for the world, good for the economy, etc. Marriage is a good relationship goal. And if you spend your first fifteen adult years screwing around for fun, sowing your wild oats instead of looking for a good wife or husband, finding a good wife or husband will be much harder and your eventual marriage will be harder, too.

Pro tip: Our world is increasingly more okay with shunning the institutions of marriage and parenthood. So if you know, for a fact, that you want to be married and have children, don’t be afraid to say so when you meet someone you’re interested in. Don’t be weird about it and make it a big deal. And don’t show him your dream wedding dress or anything bonkers like that. But mention it when it comes up if it comes up. If they go running, bid them good riddance.

Expect sexual brokenness.

Let’s be honest, friends. We live in a broken world. There is a high likelihood that the person you date and/or end up marrying will have some sort of emotional or physical baggage about sex. Either they’ve been abused or have been an abuser. Maybe they have had a lot of sexual partners or are afraid to have one. They may have been happily married before and you may feel insecure about their expectations. They may be addicted to sex or porn or you may be addicted to sex or porn.

Screw the taboos. Maybe don’t discuss your sexual history on Day 1. But, when things get serious, get serious about being honest. Your future spouse deserves to know your whole story, even if the details or the depth of the effects takes time to unravel. Sexual brokenness can heal and marriages can thrive amidst the brokenness, but not so long as there are secrets and unaddressed fears or insecurities. A healthy sex life requires openness, vulnerability, and trust. Don’t wait until after you’re married to tell it like it is.

Limit your alcohol and be wary of being alone.

This bit of advice, especially, will be a constant refrain spoken to my children.

First, I’ll say this now so you know I said it: sexual assault is never justified. It is not okay. A victim is never to blame.

Now, let’s also be honest about what environments make sexual assault–or uncomfortable relationship scenarios of any kind–more likely. My guess is that many assault situations involve a) drugs or alcohol and/or b) being alone in a compromising situation.

I can’t tell you what to do, but my advice to my children will be straight-forward:
Do not drink alcohol in mixed company, with a group of people you don’t know and trust. Do not spend time alone, in private places, with someone you do not know and desire intimacy with–especially with alcohol involved. Do not push the limits of sexual desire and self-control with someone you do not know and trust, especially if he/she seems more or less interested than you do. If you don’t know what someone wants or is really asking for, ask them. And do not hesitate to call me or your father or any other trustworthy person within reach if or when you feel vulnerable and need help.

Yes, assault and abuse can absolutely happen in marriages or in friendships, at the hands of people you trust. But I think this “don’t drink / don’t be alone” advice is a good start and could save a lot of people from unnecessary baggage later on in life and relationships.

But, really, my best piece of dating advice is this:

You’re great.

Lots of people think you’re great.

But not everyone is going to want to date you or marry you and that’s okay.

Marriage is awesome and I recommend it and I think everyone should do it. BUT. Marriage is not the end goal of life and it’s not a sign of success. You can be a million awesome things without being married.

So, while you wait or while you look for a mate, find good work that makes those around you and your world better. Surround yourself with people who support you and whose love for you makes you an even better you. Do the hard work now of becoming the kind of person you’d like to marry. And then even if you never end up married, you’re still super awesome and have amazing friends and have made the world a better place to boot.

And, lastly, marriage is 10% magic and 90% doing the dishes and “Honey, can you bring me a roll of toilet paper?” So, when you meet someone who’s a good catch, don’t wait for the magical moment to ask them to hang out. Even if you’re already friends and it might be awkward. Even if they aren’t really your type or you’re afraid you might not be theirs.

Maybe grab a coffee. Maybe go for a walk.
And maybe skip the cocktails until a few months in.

Godspeed. (I think you’ll need it.)

So The Hurricane Got Me Thinking…

Some people like haunted houses; I like to prepare for emergency evacuations. (To each his own, I guess?)

I’ve written before here and here about disaster preparedness. What began as a coping mechanism for some of my chronic anxiety became a bit of a hobby for a while. And though I’m not stockpiling rice and beans at this point, I still enjoy the act of emergency preparation.

Right now, our government is issuing evacuation orders for residents along the Southeast coast. People are weighing the options of whether or not it’s worth the fuss to evacuate, whether or not they can afford to leave, where they could possibly go, and what they should take with them.

I’ll probably never need to evacuate my home. I know that. But I’ve read too much apocalyptic fiction to not at least entertain the idea. Plus, emergencies really do happen, especially extreme weather. So whether it’s a snow storm that could mean no milk on the grocery shelves for three days or a novel-worthy economic collapse, it doesn’t hurt to visit the issue as a family and do some basic preparations “just in case.”

First of all, it should be said that there are emergency situations wherein the best plan is to stay put. Preppers call this “bugging in” and the government calls this “sheltering in place.” Most of us have done this at some point in our lives for a few hours or overnight during a snow storm or power outage. And, unless you’re talking about a mass-damage scenario like a city-leveling earthquake or a hurricane, it’s probably short-term. As long as you can keep yourselves warm and fed for three days, you’ll be quite alright. (Long-term survival gets a bit trickier. I’m not going to get into that right now.)

But what if you can’t stay home? Or if you’re forced to leave? I have three bits of advice for those interested in better preparing their family for an evacuation or other emergency scenario.

Have your things in order.

A few years ago, I created a comprehensive Emergency Binder for our family and I (try to) update the info once or twice a year. The binder includes current family photos of us as well as close extended family (for identification purposes), plus personal and legal information, medical information, home and mortgage info, financial info, details about and photos of valuable personal items for replacement, etc. It is stored in a safe place (I ain’t telling where) with other things I’d like to grab in an emergency like hard drive backups of our computer and family photos, hard copies of important documents, etc.

I also keep track of where important keepsake items are so we can take them with us if we needed to. As of now, this stuff is not accessible enough to take within minutes, but definitely within a few hours. On my list of home projects is consolidating some of my most precious keepsakes and heirlooms into one single bin for this reason.

Know what to bring.

Because my family is into the outdoors and camping, we have a lot of the kind of gear that could keep us alive in an emergency and I keep it all together and organized. This means that tents and sleeping bags and camping stoves are all clean and tidy and packed in an easy-to-find place so I can take what I need when I need it. There is one particular small (water resistant) plastic bin with things like our walkie-talkies, emergency weather radio, extra flashlights, batteries, are fire-making tools. (Most of this stuff would be more likely used for bugging in, not evacuating.)

But, on the same big shelf as our gear are both A) emergency bags for each person in our family for a quick evacuation and B) emergency bins for longer-term evacuation.

These emergency bags–“72-hour packs” or “bug out bags” if you’re into the lingo–are backpacks packed with basic comfort and survival gear, enough to last a few days. This is the sort of thing you’d grab in a super urgent situation like a home fire or any other “Quick, we need to leave now!” scenario. Everyone I’ve seen online has a little different spin to their bags but ours each include both survival gear (like water, snacks, a pocket knife, headlamp, safety whistle, poncho, emergency blanket, first aid, etc.) and comfort items (like a sweater, socks and underwear, a toy and/or book, toiletries, etc.). Every family member also has a laminated emergency info card with important names, phone numbers, addresses, etc. Our toddler has a few cloth diapers and covers (because they can be washed and reused unlike disposable diapers).

Yes, these emergency bags would save our lives if the situation was that severe. But, in most situations, these bags would simply provide a little bit of comfort and security for our kids if they were suddenly separated from home. (The emergency info cards, for example, also include a few family photos.)

The emergency bins are just packed with our normal camping gear like flashlights, cooking tools, etc., but also include extra items like a change of clothes for each person, extra non-perishable food and snacks, water filtration, and comfort items like books and comfy blankets. These bins build on what’s already in the emergency bags and the intent is to always have everything packed and ready to grab so that, if we ever decided to load up the car and leave town in a rush, we could just throw on our backpacks, grab the bins, and have everything that we need.

What we bring depends on the situation and urgency so I’ve made myself a checklist to take out the guess work. It starts with “Immediate Evacuation” and expands into a larger list for a 30 minute evacuation, a one hour evacuation, and an impending evacuation. It is laminated and I keep a copy next to my bed on the third floor, on the fridge on the second floor, and also on the first floor. As the list gets larger, things are organized first by the things the kids can do themselves (put on socks and sturdy shoes, grab a favorite stuffed animal, etc.) and then by the levels of our home so I know what to grab from each floor of the house as we head toward the door. (Every family’s list will be different but I can share one to get you started.)

Know where you’re going.

Depending on how long we need to stay and how far we need to travel, we have a few options of where to go. I’ve made it a point to know how to get to places like my mother in-law’s house (a likely place for nearby relocation), using multiple routes, without using a phone for directions. I even know the best walking routes if things got really bonkers and we had to load up our strollers and travel on foot somewhere (roads were blocked, etc.). Part of our emergency binder includes contact information for family in other parts of the country for longer-term relocation. (And, Lord helps us, if we had to walk across Indiana to find my brother in Michigan, we could do it. Ha!)

If walking across the country like The Road seems overwhelming, start realistically. Print out copies of phone numbers and addresses so you aren’t crippled if you lose or can’t use your phone. Keep a decent amount of gas in your car, buy a road atlas, and know how to use a compass. Also: make sure your car always has basic emergency supplies like first aid, a blanket, and snacks (which is a good idea even if there’s never a large-scale emergency). Then, no matter where you are when there’s an emergency, you can just continue on to your destination.

 

But, really, what are the chances of needing to enact your emergency plan? It really depends where you live. Are you in flood or hurricane zone? Tornado alley? Near a fault line? Is your home vulnerable to forest fires? Do you need to be prepared for civil unrest?

And what you prepare really depends on your family makeup. Elderly, children, and pets all have particular needs. When my babies were really young, for example, I always kept a can of baby formula in the house because, even if I was exclusively breastfeeding, there was always a chance I’d be separated from my baby in an emergency. The formula samples came free in the mail. It cost me nothing.

Maybe this sounds expensive or overwhelming. Well, it doesn’t need to be. The best way to start is to start small with things you already have in the house and building up from there. Designate a single closet or shelf or drawer for emergency supplies you may need at any time. Find a few old backpacks to pack as evacuation bags and replace them with nicer bags when/if you can. Keep a little extra cash in an envelope to use if computers are down or banks are closed or you need to pay someone for a favor. Organize any camping or survival gear so it can be accessed quickly when needed, rather than pulled out from a crawlspace somewhere.

If you have kids, introduce the idea of preparedness in ways that are realistic and non-threatening. Let them pull out their emergency bags and bins and see what’s inside, but let them know they are not for play (because they need to stay intact). Let them help you trade out the clothes every year when they outgrow them. They’ll be happy to eat the snacks every six months when you replace them with fresh ones. If they are old enough to follow directions, prepare them for the possibility that you may need their help if there is ever an emergency, even if it’s just to watch the baby while you pack the car.

You don’t need to go all out Prepper to feel prepared for an emergency or natural disaster. Just think more realistically about how chaotic things can get as emergency situations roll out and how quickly you may need to get your act together. Do the work of preparing now so that, if you need to, you can just grab the bags and go.

 

(P.S. This is not comprehensive information. Our government, The American Red Cross, etc. all have great info online about how to prepare for an emergency. Just google it. You’ll find all sorts of wise and wack-o advice. Heck, you might even learn how to build your own underground bunker or properly filter urine for drinking. It’s a wild prepper world out there, folks.)

 

The Dangers of Mega-church, Mini-church, and Everything In-between

“Did you hear about what’s happening at Willow Creek?”

Sure. Yep. I did.

And a wise friend suggested that armchair theologians such myself allow the smoke to clear before making Willow Creek this week’s object lesson.

Is the smoke clear yet?

Truthfully though, this post isn’t really about Willow Creek Community Church. And that’s a good thing because some of you who read my blog a) have no idea what I’m talking about and b) have no interest in church-y things in the first place.

And I want to be clear that if you’re my friend and you are a part of Willow or have been a part of Willow or are really into some other Willow-like mega-church somewhere else, this post isn’t written to shame you or poke fun at you or your church.

I remember attending a concert sometime around middle school and, afterwards, the Willow youth worship team got on stage and performed “Not An Addict” by K’s Choice and then preached the Gospel to a crowd of a couple thousand church kids and their friends. That was my first exposure to Willow Creek Community Church and I thought it was super, super cool.

I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s in the Chicago area when Willow Creek was rewriting the church life and evangelism rule book. Looking back, I can see how my childhood church and the other in-the-know churches in the Chicago region caught on and adopted some of the same seeker-sensitive methods of church growth. I remember studying Willow and their church model in college when studying the Christian theology of worship. And now, more than 20 years after my first Willow experience, I still see the ripples all over the American church, here in Cincinnati and elsewhere.

Let me tell you what I love about mega-churches.

I love that they said “screw it” to the sacred/secular divide in pop culture and welcomed all sorts of people and art and music and expressions into their worship. (K’s Choice, what!?)

I love that they design church buildings to be used around the clock for community events, meetings, support groups, etc.

I love that they have so many people and so many resources that they can accomplish big, crazy, audacious things in their communities and around the world.

I love that they take chances and dream big.

I love that they made it okay to bring coffee into the sanctuary. (Thank you from the bottom of my heart.)

But it will come as no surprise to people who know me that I, fundamentally, have a real big problem with mega-churches. And as this Willow Creek thing (and the Windsor Village thing and the Yoido Full Gospel Church thing and the Mars Hill thing and the New Life Church thing before it…) comes into focus, my problem with mega-churches only gets bigger.

See, every time a Once-Adored Famous Christian Leader-Guy gets himself wrapped up in a scandal, everyone wants to make it about this guy or that guy and their super-personal sin problem. “He was a creep,” they say. “That church failed.” Yet, an honest assessment of (what seems like) the high rate of serious moral failure among mega-church pastors should beg some deeper questions about the systems (i.e. churches) that give these men their platform and support their careers and whether there might be some problems lurking therein.

Is it possible that the mega-church model spells trouble for pastors and, thereby, trouble for the Church?

“Hey! That’s not fair!” you might say. “I’ve seen plenty of sex/money/power scandals among small church pastors, too!”

Yes! Absolutely! Churches of every size and system have their own blindspots and vulnerabilities and so they will all lend themselves to different, common problems. That’s why this blog is about “mega-churches, mini-churches, and everything in-between.” I could write about problems common in house churches, in urban churches, in suburban churches, in liberal churches, in third-wave Pentecostal churches…. (you get the point). Trust me, I’m really good at pointing out the problems in church! (It’s something I’m trying to use for good…)

For the sake of this post, the “dangers” I’m addressing are common to churches that employ the mega-church model of church growth. But not all mega-churches are the same and the Willow Creek church model is used in varying degrees, in churches of all sizes. So your church might fit the bill and it might not.

My suggestion here–the reason I’m writing–is that there are questions to ask when considering what makes a church vulnerable to a large-scale moral failure or the abuse of power among its leader(s). Asking these questions could expose the weak places that, together, create the Titanic-sized disaster of a super-famous pastor with lots of power and influence over thousands of people, with little accountability from trusted advisors.

  • Is it built on a consumer model of church membership and worship? Is the focus always to attract, attract, attract, rather than retain and engage active members? Is there a high turnover of attendees that only come for the parts they like and the programs they enjoy? Do people show up, regularly, only to see or hear the famous pastor or worship leader? Are there “members” who never actually step foot in the church building for worship but regularly consume the music or messages on TV yet still call it “their church?”
  • How faithfully is the Gospel preached, on a regular basis, to all in attendance? Does the church often “hide the lead” behind a bunch of worldly, feel-good, generally spiritual messaging? Is the name of Jesus proclaimed as primary or does it take a while to hear the real message? Is the Bible opened and read from the pulpit?
  • Is there an imbalance of giving/taking? How many of the congregants are actively serving in or giving to the church? How many long-time attendees have become covenanted members? What is the volunteer rate?
  • What is the in-group/out-group ratio? How deep must someone dig into the church to feel like they’re really a part of the community, in fellowship and discipleship with one another? Do many regular attendees still feel anonymous? How many names do the elders/pastors know on any given Sunday?
  • How well distributed is the power/influence? Is there one leader with a small, exclusive group of consultants calling all the shots, or is there a larger, diverse governing body?
  • How many “adequate” men and women are serving in the church? Is there a competent spiritual leader available to disciple and mentor all active members? Are leaders replicating their leadership to provide deep spiritual care among all members, or is spiritual care only available in a shallow, general sense?
  • Is every congregation at every location led by a team of elders who are equipped to teach and disciple? Is there a complete leadership team present among every worshiping body or are there “satellite campuses” without a resident teaching pastor or no proper, particular spiritual authority? Is every new church campus working toward viability apart from the central leadership?
  • Who can say “no” to the leader(s)? Are there systems of accountability for the men in charge? What happens to peers or members who question their authority? What happens when concerns are raised?
  • Is there a “trademark” culture of the church? Do they cooperate well with other churches and their community or do they insist on doing only their own programs with their own names and in their own way? Are they a good partner or always the leader?
  • Is the church run so much like a business that it relies only on market-driven markers of success and “profit” like membership numbers, new converts, or attendees at large-scale events? If you knew none of the church’s impressive statistics, or if all the markers of success faded away, would you still be proud to be a part of the church?

 

But, wait. Can’t God work through any/every church? I mean, he’s God, right? Why does this even matter?

Besides, you love your church. You have met some amazing people there. You feel like you can really worship and serve your city by being a part of your church.

I get it. I feel that, too.

But, even a basic reading of the Bible should make it clear that a) God takes seriously how we worship Him and b) the Apostles took seriously how the church was to order itself in worship and life.

Plus, let’s get real. The Church is about God’s vision and mission, not yours. So you can do all the awesome stuff you want and, sure, maybe “your heart is in the right place” but God still just sees it “like filthy rags” or hears it like a big old obnoxious banging gong.

So, yes.
How we build our churches and worship our God matters.

To clarify: I don’t think God takes pleasure in the public shame of his people. And he definitely doesn’t want to see his name connected to scandal. So I’m not suggesting that if you don’t serve communion correctly or if your pastor’s got a little too much ego, God’s going to make your communion bread go stale and let your pastor have an extra-marital affair.

But the truth is that every pastor is vulnerable to moral failure. As is every one of his congregants. We are all just a few bad decisions away from being the subject of the next “Church Scandal!” headline.

But maybe God knew this when he designed the Church. And maybe he designed the Church to not only proclaim the Gospel to the world, but also to protect us from falling victim to the sins of others and to the corruption in our own hearts–pastor and congregation alike. If we design our church structure and governance (i.e. our “church polity”) wisely, according to his plan, maybe we can accomplish both the preaching and the protecting.

A big church like Willow Creek can sometimes feel untouchable, like it is too big to fail. But these “unsinkable ships” do, in fact, sink. And when they go down, they bring thousands down with them. And the rest of us, even those who aren’t members, are tired of feeling the ripples.

 

Ten Years of Marriage (some thoughts)

A peek at what a decade of marriage has been like for me:

Years 1-5
I wouldn’t call these our “honeymoon years,” exactly, because we never really got any sweet, idealistic years of basking in marital bliss. I found out I was pregnant three weeks into our marriage and everything after that was a blur. We launched into ministry, helping with a new church plant. My husband closed down his business to get a more stable income while we waited for our son’s birth. I tried to navigate my own career and creative aspirations while the quick, urgent life changes of motherhood begged my attention.

We survived our first few years alright and have a lot of stories to tell. Some of it was really super fun. But as far as the health of our marriage, most of what was happening in and between us was happening quietly or was completely hidden. There was a lot we were both feeling and thinking but never talked about. There were a lot of unmet needs and expectations, a lot of confusion about roles and responsibilities. A lot of surprises. A lot of loneliness and disappointment.

Years 5-7
How long does it take to really know a person? I’d say it takes as long as it takes you to figure out what you really hate about them. For us, I think it probably took us about 5 years to start seeing the ugly side of each other. Or at least choosing to see the ugly side of each other more than the ugly side of ourselves. These are the years we started blaming each other–silently, of course–for all that was wrong in our marriage. This is where bitterness sets in. Resentment. And detachment.

You see, I’m not much of a fighter, at least not about personal things. I fight about ideas. I fight about issues. But I don’t want to fight about the thing you did to me that made me want to throw you out the window. I’d much rather suck it up or stew in it and pretend I’m above being hurt or angered by you.

My husband, on the other hand, is a fighter. And every time we fought during those first half a dozen years, I walked away feeling secretly small and powerless in our marriage but also cocky and proud of how I’d maintained my composure and never let on how small and powerless I felt. (“Ha! I won!”)

But Years 7-9 were the years I learned how to fight.
I learned how to yell back. How to allow myself to be hurt. How to let someone else see me cry. How to defend myself if I had been wronged. How to say things like “I feel…” and “it feels like…” and also “we need to talk about…” How to face it all head on and let it all out in the open. I learned how to give him space to be mad and frustrated and disappointed with me without shrinking under the weight of it all. And I learned to walk away from a fight trying to understand what was really happening under it all.

These were, coincidentally, the years between our third and fourth child. And this time in our marriage was like a gritty, get-your-nails-dirty Spring cleaning; like shaking the dust off a rug you should have been vacuuming for the past seven years but were too busy to take the time. It was sort of like a huge, deep gasp for air after a long, exhausting run. And it was pretty ugly but also pretty liberating. And when we decided to go ahead and have a fourth baby, it felt like a really big leap into what we knew was another emotional and relational abyss (because pregnancy and babies can be like a marital black hole). And the truth is that we weren’t really ready to do it again, and we knew it, but we were okay with what we knew it would do to us and to our marriage.

Because sometime in the past few years, Years 9-10, I learned how to let marriage (and motherhood) do its job. And I use the word “learned” loosely because I’m still nowhere near completion. But much of the work of the past few years started with a small but conscious decision to allow this work of womanhood–being a wife and a mother–actually make me a better woman. And that means looking harder at myself than at others. And that means trying to root out some of the things in me that have not only contributed to my marital problems, but also my problems with my family, my church, and my friendships.

And, let’s be honest here, it has not been fun. Maybe some woman somewhere falls into marriage and motherhood with grace and competence and only becomes more of her perfected self as she does. But, geez, as I get further and further along into this wife and mother thing I only become more aware of how bad I am at it.

Don’t misunderstand me. I know I’m a good catch. And so does my husband. So I’m not saying that all of our marital problems are my fault or that I’m a hopeless mess.

What I’m saying is that a good marriage exposes us for who we truly are and, if done well, makes even the best people better. And, now ten years into marriage and 9+ years into motherhood, I have a good grip on the worst parts of me and I’m ready to get better.

The nature of intimate relationships–relationships like marriage, motherhood, etc.–is that they reveal our deepest desires and hopes and longings either in the way they fulfill them and make us feel more alive and more ourselves or the way they leave them unfulfilled and leave us disappointed and dejected. (You can quote me on that.)

Making a marriage work for the long haul seems to require, first, working through these longings and expectations to find what is good to desire and reasonable to expect. And then building a marriage where the right desires and expectations of both people are happily met. Some of this is work a couple does together. Some of this is work that needs to be done alone. I’m guessing all couples are at a different place on this spectrum. Maybe some start off the bat with all their longings and expectations met in each other and then they ride off into the sunset on unicorns to find the gold at the end of the rainbow. (For the record: we are not those people.)

For the rest of us, this means not only sorting through our own needs/desires and expectations but also responding to those of our spouse (or our children). I struggle with both ends of the equation. Maybe I always will.

This is all fresh on my mind because last night we celebrated our tenth anniversary.

Making it ten years felt really, really big and important and also really, really ordinary. It felt big because I know that a lot of marriages don’t last this long. And ordinary because ten years is small potatoes compared to twenty or fifty and we still have a lot of work to do to last that long. I wonder how many seasons we’ll pass through these next few years. I wonder what thoughts I’ll be sharing ten years from now.

Until then, here are ten quick tips for those who are newly married or not so newly married but are really struggling through a difficult season like one we’ve been through:

  1. When you’re angry, do the dishes. Or scrub the bathtub. Or fold laundry. It spends your angry energy, gives your mind time to work through the anger, and it gets something done that needs to be done anyway. There have been a lot of nights when a midnight load of dishes was just enough to get me to bed in peace.
  2. Practice speaking positively, both to/about your spouse and about your life together. I am notoriously negative, so this is hard for me. But affirming what is good and going well really makes the hard stuff a lot easier to work through.
  3. Take sex seriously, but with good humor. My experience is that most couples have at least some sexual issues to work through, whether it’s small stuff like how frequently you have sex or big stuff like sexual addiction. My advice is to be as open and honest as humanly possible. Call it like it is. Get help if/when you need it. If you don’t, it will ruin your marriage. But don’t give sex more power over your marriage than it should have–it’s supposed to give life, not steal it.
  4. Be okay with unresolved problems. I am learning to let a little conflict still linger in the air if it needs to. Some fights don’t end before bed and that’s okay.
  5. Let it take a while. My guess is that most couples who last 50 years didn’t solve all their marital problems in year 5. Or year 25, for that matter. Being in it for the long haul means expecting that each season of life will bring new challenges. There will be new issues to address when your first child is born. When you make decisions about jobs and houses and churches. There will be new conflicts when the kids are out of the house. Don’t be surprised by it.
  6. Touch each other, even if just in simple small ways–a hand on the back, a small kiss goodbye, a squeeze on his arm in bed. It does matter. We all need to be touched.
  7. Have kids. Don’t wait forever. Have more than one. Fall in love with your kids. And then pray that God would use the refining fire of parenting to make you worthy of being their parent.
  8. Learn to clarify the things your spouse does and says that hurt you. Learn the difference between what he says and what you hear, between what he does and what you perceive. Ascribe to each other the best of intentions rather than the worst. Let him explain himself before you allow yourself to be offended.
  9. Let your husband grow and change and take care of himself. Be cool about it when he turns 40 and buys a skateboard or starts building a gazebo in the backyard. Encourage him to pick back up the guitar or join a softball league or write a book; don’t mock him if he wants to start training for a marathon or start a new diet. Go with him to see that band he’s suddenly into or just be excited for him when he wants to go with his buddies instead. So long as he’s not neglecting you or your kids or doing anything destructive, give him space to re-imagine himself and his identity and interests as he grows older. You will want the same from him.
  10. Do something fun. I tend to be overly serious, but laughter goes a long way in healing wounds and cultivating affection. Find something you enjoy doing together, whether it’s coffee in the morning or long drives to nowhere. Maybe it’s card games or watching weird sci-fi movies. (Bonus points if it doesn’t cost a lot of money. Then you can do it as often as you want.) Are you having a particularly hard week? Have you been fighting more than normal? Hop in the car or pull out the deck of cards. Enjoy each other. Chill out and remember how you ended up married in the first place.

Submitting to the Work of Motherhood

There is a recurrent theme in many of the blogs and articles my female peers share online: I’m a mom and I’m tired.

I like these articles. They speak to my own experience and I find them refreshingly honest. But, ladies, are we really surprised? Why is it that my generation of women is so disenchanted by the amount of investment and the physical, mental, and emotional work required of motherhood, especially of the stay-at-home variety?

Part of our problem is that, somewhere along the line, the popular narrative of womanhood starting painting motherhood as a side gig, something we could do in our spare time. Parenting and educating our kids–even our newborns–became something we could outsource to a professional while we pursued other work.

Can we outsource our mothering? Sure. For the right price. (I mean, the wealthy have done it for generations.) But it’s a price many of us are not willing pay–even if we could.

I, for one, like seeing the increase in public acknowledgement of the work of motherhood. It validates what we all know: motherhood is work. It’s damn hard work. The women I know who do it full-time (in place of working outside the home) are exhausted. And the women I know who are mothers on top of another career are exhausted in maybe a more profound way. And it’s good that we’re admitting it.

For my part, I strongly affirm a woman’s decision to stay home full-time with her children. In fact, I strongly encourage it as the “Plan A” for all mothers of young children for many reasons–economic, spiritual, emotional, etc.. I know that, by saying this, I run the risk of offending some of my friends who have chosen another plan or feel like Plan A just didn’t work for them. But my goal is not to shame those women. (In fact, it took me 7.5 years of motherhood to finally stay home full-time and, even now, I still take freelance work on the side.) My goal, instead, is to validate the work of motherhood and affirm those who have submitted to it as such.

All blogs and op ed articles aside, we don’t do a good job of encouraging women in the work of motherhood. Instead, among my peers, we praise young women for pursuing professional degrees that will take 5-10 years of their child-bearing lives before they then commit to another 5-10 years of career building. And conversely, even if we claim otherwise, we perceive stay-at-home motherhood as a pit stop for women, something they do only while their children are very young, before they get to the fulfilling work they will do outside of the home once their children are in school (as if the work ends when our children turn 6).

Now, obviously, no good mother “turns off” her mothering. I know many fantastic mothers who are trying to balance both a career and home life and even a woman who works 50 hours a week outside of the home is never not a mother. Motherhood is a 24/7 job and the nuclear family is the single-most influential institution in a child’s life. This is only more affirmation that we need to respect the work of motherhood as not only hard work in and of itself, but an entirely different kind of work than all other work that a woman could choose. And we need to treat it as not equal but actually paramount to whatever other work she does.

Do I mean to say that women cannot or should not pursue professions that require investment outside their home? Maybe. Maybe not. Asserting either would be beside my point. I’m more interested in exposing our double-standard in the way we affirm other work above motherhood so that women who do choose motherhood to be their work feel validated in that decision.

And then I’d like to encourage mothers to submit to motherhood as work the same way they would any other career or vocation.

To illustrate my point: A medical student knows that she is going to have to invest the next 7-10 years of her life in pursuing her career. The road is long and will require many sacrifices. Her social life, her financial security, her 8 required hours of sleep, her diet, even her sex life. They will all take the back seat at some point to her pursuit. But is it worth it? To her, yes. There is a goal at the end: a medical career and the professional, ideological, personal, and social perks it brings.

But what about a woman’s 7-10 (or 20+) year investment in motherhood? What does she have to look forward to at the end of the road other than a ten year void on her professional resume and weird looks from the other people at dinner parties when she says she’s “just a mom?”

Motherhood supplies no PhD. No paycheck (though we could argue the financial benefits of staying home vs. working). There is no guaranteed social capital or respect among peers.

But there are the children.
Are they not enough?

Is it not enough to invest our lives in producing a handful of mentally, emotionally, and spiritually healthy kids? Kids who have been disciplined and educated consistently by people who know them and love them? Kids who are emotionally secure and attached so they can go into the world and continue to produce likewise healthy and secure children on and on into the future?

And what about the personal benefits of motherhood?

What about the way it pushes us physically, mentally, and emotionally? What about the things it teaches us about our own limits and capacity to grow and change? What about the way it exposes our best and worst selves and sanctifies us over and over again? What about the way it brings a part of us to life that doesn’t really exist when exercised any other way? What about the way motherhood binds women together across cultures and generations?

Is that not worth “taking a few years off?”
Isn’t that a kind of work worth submitting yourself to for a while?

Let me clarify what “submitting to the work of motherhood” does not mean:

It does not mean you will only be a mother. It does not mean that you stop being a wife or a friend or a teacher or a marathoner or a bird watcher. It does not mean that, when introduced in public, you have to always list your role as “mom” first. This does not need to be the only thing people know about you.

It does not mean you cannot find work on the side to help pay your family’s bills. It does not mean you should never get paid to write or to babysit someone else’s children or to sell beauty products. It does not mean saying “no” to offers to consult professionally if you have the capacity to do so.

It does not mean your husband should never help clean the house or that you can’t pay a babysitter to watch the kids. It does not mean you have to homeschool the kids or bake your own bread or knit them all winter hats. It does not mean you may no longer order pizza on Friday nights after a long week.

It does not mean you have to have six to eight kids. And it does not mean you have to have them when you’re a newlywed 22. And, it does not mean you’re less of a mother if it takes until you’re 45 and become a foster parent instead.

Lastly–submitting to the work of motherhood does not require you idolize motherhood. You need not obsess over your children. You need not talk about them constantly. And you need not lose sleep over how frequently you fail and screw it up. (Because, yes, you will surely screw it up. No one is good at all motherhood requires. I humbly submit myself as evidence of this.)

What this does mean:

Submitting to the work of motherhood means walking into the job expecting it to be hard and committing to do it well the same way–or more than–you would any other job. It means letting motherhood be the kind of work that your children are worthy of. And it means letting motherhood make you a better woman for it.

It means that, when you meet a woman who is a stay-at-home mom, you should not pity her as if this is all she could have done and you should not shame her for not having a profitable career. Instead, you should validate her decision the same way you would validate any woman engaged in valuable work–like a woman who you can learn something from.

Husbands, it means validating your wives for the hard work they do and how much easier it makes your life. Your wife lives a world that is still waiting for her to find a “real job” and she needs to know what these sacrifices mean to you and your kids. It means reminding her that her work will bear fruit (because she won’t always believe it). Practically-speaking, it means helping her find solutions that streamline and ease the labor especially since, out of necessity, most of the daily maintenance of a home will probably rest on her. (This also means ensuring she gets a legit Sabbath when–or before–she needs it.)

I hope that, if you are a mom (or wish to be), you will stop selling yourself short. The work is hard and the value of motherhood is immeasurable. It’s okay to be tired.

Mothers, do not be ashamed to commit a long, hard 5 or 10 or 20 years to working at this like it’s your job. Because it is.

On School Shootings, 9/11, and a Generation Born Into Mortality

What child, while summer is happening, bothers to think much that summer will end? What child, when snow is on the ground, stops to remember that not long ago the ground was snowless? It is by its content rather than its duration that a child knows time, by its quality rather than its quantity—happy times and sad times, the time the rabbit bit your finger, the time you had your first taste of bananas and cream, the time you were crying yourself to sleep when somebody came and lay down beside you in the dark for comfort. Childhood’s time is Adam and Eve’s time before they left the garden for good and from that time on divided everything into before and after. It is the time before God told them that the day would come when they would surely die with the result that from that point on they made clocks and calendars for counting their time out like money and never again lived through a day of their lives without being haunted somewhere in the depths of them by the knowledge that each day brought them closer to the end of their lives.

– Originally published in The Sacred Journey, by Frederick Buechner

I was in high school when the Columbine shooting happened.
I was in college on 9/11.

But I had my first significant brush with death when I was about 13 and a childhood friend was hit by a car and killed. So while both September 11th and Columbine were sufficiently traumatic for most of us, by the time I was introduced to the world of mass casualties I was at least already aware of my mortality.

Did you know that children today (as in, everyone under the age of 18), have never known an America that wasn’t at war?

Think about that for a moment and then think about your own childhood. There are a lot of things about my childhood that I don’t remember. But I do remember my fears. They were normal childhood fears like house fires and not being invited to a popular girl’s birthday party.

Because I was born in 1982, I belong to that tiny little micro-generation of kids who graduated from high school before cell phones, email, and social media had really infiltrated our daily lives. The nightly news was on tv and in the daily paper, for sure, but not on a newsfeed updated every thirty seconds and fed to an electronic device that was always turned on in my pocket. Big news was communicated slowly, person to person.

When that friend died, my grandfather broke the news to me while I stood at a payphone in the school lobby. Someone had called the house to tell me and he’d taken the call. If the same thing happened today, I’d probably see it pop up in a mutual friend’s Facebook feed before I ever heard the news from another real person.

Even though I’m only a few short years removed from being an official “Millennial,” the Millennial Generation feels foreign to me. And it’s partially because they were raised with a digital dimension to their world and relationships that I did not have as a child. With all of its other issues, part of what came with the infiltration of this digital dimension is the omnipresent weight of mortality that it brings. They are surrounded by a constant newsfeed that reminds them of a world a war, a shooting across the country, and every potential danger in their own neighborhood. (In addition to the social pressures created by social media.)

“Kids these days” get a lot of crap for being the way they are. But I wonder how this ever-present reminder of their mortality has affected them. I wonder if what we’re seeing is an effect similar to what we already see manifested in kids raised in vulnerable situations, in violent families, or in poverty. I wonder if the kind of hope-killing trauma that used to be reserved for “those people” is now present in even the most privileged American childhoods.

One of the promises of “the American Dream” born after WWII was a certain national impenetrability and the promise that hard work, financial security, and dutiful community service would provide a sense of security for us and our progeny. But young people today look at their parents and grandparents and feel that this promise of stability and security was a lie. They have swam their entire lives in a sea of national and personal vulnerability.

It’s no wonder younger generations don’t feel the same sense of duty or loyalty to their country. The social contract of mutual protection has failed them.

I would argue that, whether conscious of it or not, young people today (and I will include myself in this) are in fact more aware of their mortality. Because of that, they are less willing to spend their lives fulfilling obligations to others, attending to social constructs, and delaying gratification etc. It’s like a child who has been told he has a terminal illness. He either clings to the familiar and never leaves the house or he sells everything, moves to California, and starts skydiving.

In addition to their general distaste for previous generations’ social norms, the post-9/11 generation is less tolerant of violence and offense in daily interactions, even in the way they communicate with each other. They have a stronger self-defense mechanism and have really spearheaded the “ally” movement that seeks to protect the vulnerable among them. They literally create Safe Spaces for themselves where they believe they can escape the danger lurking around every corner.

My parents raised me in the age of “stranger danger,” which produced a few generational quirks (like a fear of unmarked white vans). But parents who sent their kids off to high school after the Columbine shooting were afraid on a different level entirely. Parenting in this new, scary world meant keeping a close watch, keeping a tight leash, and applying lots of pressure toward the kinds of professional and personal achievements that could provide future security. But although helicopter parenting kept these kids alive, it produced the anxious and dependent young adults that are now creeping toward their 30’s and are struggling to build healthy, long-lasting marriages, afraid to commit to parenting, and cannot find (or do not want) consistent employment.

Those young people who do settle into parenthood today are parenting very differently than their parents or grandparents did. In addition to their shirking of any harsh discipline, they are highly protective of their children’s egos and independence. And in trying to raise children who will not injure others, they steer clear of ideological commitments that lend themselves to hard and fast rules. Rather than pressure their children to conform to their desires, young parents are letting their young children forge their own paths in the hope that a generation unrestrained can finally build a better world.

It should also be said that, in this “better world,” attraction to Old Time Religion has waned because Old Time Religion did not make good on its promise to keep us from killing each other.

It’s no wonder that fertility rates are declining. Often listed among reasons why people don’t want to have kids: the world is too scary. The generation raised after 9/11 has been taught that an attack–whether by a foreign terrorist or a fellow high school student–is not just possible, but imminent. Why would you bring a child into a world like that?

Yes, young people today get a lot of crap for the way they are. But I think we all–collectively, as a society–have some important questions to ask regarding the world our children live in today and how it got this way. And I don’t mean policy questions about guns and airport security and whether or not our preteens should be allowed at home alone. Those questions should be asked because reasonable laws can keep danger at bay, but they cannot truly make us “safe.” We need to also ask questions about our mental/spiritual health and our relationships, about the hopelessness and insecurity our children feel in places that used be produce stability and and peace: our homes, our schools, churches, etc.

Have things really changed in the past 30 years?
Are we really less safe or more vulnerable than we were before, either as a country or personally?

Maybe; maybe not.

In some ways, I’d say that the perception of constant danger, which is perpetuated by fast, digital news media and social media, is mostly “fake news.” We are all far more “safe” than we’ve ever been in some regards. But any statistics that measure our security can only tell part of the story. More now than ever, we are aware of the dangers that do exist and feel more vulnerable because of it. And, the nature of the dangers have changed so, with them, our ability to reconcile with and prepare for those dangers has changed, as well.

We are less likely to die in a plane crash, of pneumonia, or of a random act of violence than we’ve ever been; we are more likely to die of a premeditated terror attack or of cancer.

Has the post-9/11 generation responded to their mortality differently than their predecessors?

This is not the first time that American citizens have, collectively, had a sense of imminent danger lurking nearby. My parents may not have rehearsed for active shooter scenarios, but they probably had regular bomb drills. And I’m sure every wartime since the dawn of time has reinforced a sense of mortality among both young and old. Heck, there are kids in our country’s most dangerous neighborhoods who have never known a “safe” day in their lives.

What can we learn from the wisdom and experience of those who survive and thrive through dangerous times?

Another important question is: how is the American reaction to mortality different than the reaction elsewhere?

One of the benefits of our digital age is a new awareness of what goes on around the county and around the world. We know that the presence of danger and the nearness of violence and war may be new to American children, but not to children elsewhere. How are those children coping? What are their parents doing to help them cope?

What makes some children more resilient to trauma than others?

I worry that, though American children today are more sensitive and more empathetic toward each other and the evils of the world, they may be less resilient to that evil. And that leaves a generation that is not only frightened, but also helpless and hopeless.

I often think of the entire generation of European children whose parents sent them off during WWII to live with strangers or distant relatives in places they had never been. They did not know how long they would be gone, how long the war would last. They did not know if they’d ever see their parents again.

I think about entire nations of refugee children fleeing war-torn nations today, right now, with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and memories of shell-shocked homes and dead neighbors.

Could American children survive that trauma?
Could mine?

It’s easy to poke fun at “snowflake” Millennials, to call them weak and to roll our eyes at their ambivalence about all the things they’re “supposed to” care about. But then I think about what it must be like to grow up believing that someone is always standing on the other side of the door, ready to shoot. Or that every airplane is destined to end up lodged in the side of a building.

I can remember, as a young child, lying awake at night convinced my house was going to burn down. But I never worried that I would be blown up in a mall or shot by a classmate in the lunchroom.

Kids today are growing up in a scary world and they are afraid. They are afraid so they are grasping for security. And because they can’t find security, they are surviving with new axioms that many of us simply don’t understand. Among them: sometimes the easiest thing to do at the end of the world is to throw caution to the wind and try and enjoy your life until the bomb falls.

Instead of bemoaning the ways they’ve learned to cope, what are we doing to help?

How I’m Surviving This Year Of Homeschooling

Have you heard the joke about cleaning with kids in the house?

It goes like this: Cleaning with young kids under foot is like brushing your teeth with oreos in your mouth.

Well if that’s true, then homeschooling with young kids around is like brushing your teeth with oreos in your mouth while holding a baby and reciting poetry.

Translation: it ain’t easy.

If you count the year I “started preschool” with my eldest child, then this is my fifth year homeschooling. I’m currently teaching third grade, first grade, and something akin to preschool with a one year old baby along for the ride.

In some ways, this year has been far easier than years past. I know my kids a lot better, I’ve learned a lot of teaching tricks, have an ever-growing inventory of tools and books at my disposal, and I’m more confident in what I’m trying to do (even if I’m still learning as I go).

Logistically and emotionally, though, this year has been rough. At the most base level, I’m struggling with the 24/7 presence of four children in my home (though that struggle is nothing new for me). And, with a young toddler in the house, the chaos is over the top. It seems like as soon as we get started with a lesson, the baby falls off a chair. (Literally, he falls about a dozen times a day.)

Some days I can take the chaos with good humor, but other days leave me exhausted and overwhelmed. These past few months, there has been a lot of (both me and them) crying and hiding in the bathroom, counting down the minutes until I can get the baby to sleep so we can focus or the hours until my husband comes home.

Not all days are that hard. Most weeks, we have about one or two awesome school days that make me feel like a superhero teacher/mom/housekeeper/wife and make me want to shower my kids with candy and cupcakes all day and then publish a book about how awesome my family is. We also have one or two days a weeks that feel only marginally successful but (thankfully) go along without too much drama. And then there are always the one or two days that seem absolutely impossible until the day is finally over and I take a deep breath and honestly can’t believe we survived.

But we do survive.
We’ve survived 22 weeks of the school year, in fact. And I’m certain we’ll survive the next 14.

For anyone else in a similar overwhelmed-but-hopeful situation with homeschooling, I’d like to share how I’m surviving.

I’m slowing things down and doing less. I am saying “no” to invitations I’d really rather accept. I am ignoring cool events around town that I would normally love to bring my kids to. We are staying home more and not feeling bad about it and, while at home, I am keeping lessons quick, simple, and not forcing things that aren’t working. I’m not letting myself feel guilty for not enrolling the kids in sports or swimming lessons or art classes. I’ve also been taking one morning a week (like today!) to get away from the house, work on some writing, take care of personal/family business, run errands, etc. Even three hours a week makes a huge difference in my mental stability. I leave two or three easy, independent tasks for the two school-aged kids to do while I’m gone so they don’t completely waste the time and so we can jump back into “school” when I get back. It’s a life saver.

I’m adjusting my daily expectations for my kids and myself. The bulk of my school planning is done at the end of the previous year when I assess the work we’ve done and make lists of goals and attainments for the next year. The specifics come together over the summer as I research and purchase new materials and then it’s all re-calibrated as we near the end of each term. My planning documents for each term are not organized by day. Instead, I have a subject-based lesson checklist for each week. This means I have a lot of wiggle room on a daily basis to adjust my schedule and our content based on the needs of the day. In a season like ours, this is the only way to keep on track without getting constantly discouraged about not meeting goals like how many chapters we’ve read today or how many math facts my kid has memorized this week.

I’m learning to turn on a dime. Thriving in a season like ours requires being able to change course quickly. If something is not working, if the baby never fell asleep, if the weather is suddenly sunny, sometimes the best thing we can do is change the plan for the day. With so much to do and so many moving parts in a big family, I don’t waste time making myself or my kids miserable. Instead, I’m learning to stop the train before it derails and redirect quickly.

I’m trying not to compare my family to any other homeschooling families or myself to other homeschool moms. Maybe it’s a symptom of the social media age or maybe just a symptom of womanhood, but I’m constantly looking over my shoulder at how we compare to other families. It’s unhealthly and emotionally taxing. It’s a distraction. And I’m learning to stop it before it steals the joy from homeschooling and parenting. So what if my school room isn’t as beautiful as yours? Who cares if I don’t look photo-ready while taking my kids on a walk to the library? And is it really a big deal if my 6 year-old is still working to differentiate between “b,” “d,” and “p?” No. It’s not.

I’m putting the kids to work. This is admittedly one of the hardest parts of parenting for me but something I’m working on. Teaching kids to clean and cook and take care of themselves takes patience that I don’t always have to spare. But the investment in teaching my kids now will pay off in a huge way as they grow. One of my favorite new things to remind the kids, when telling them for the fifth time (or sixth time or seventh time) to clean up after themselves is: “This is not a punishment; this is your responsibility.” Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all, as adults, understood this for ourselves?

I’m reminding myself the “why” and keeping it in the front of my mind. People homeschool for many different reasons. Some, for example, have children with special needs or gifted children who require special attention or direction. I wrote a post a few years ago, when my son was in the first grade, about why I’m choosing to homeschool our kids and I re-read it every so often to keep myself focused. (While some of that post is outdated, it’s still mostly true. Check it out if you’re interested.) Keeping the reasons why I’m doing this in the front of my mind help me keep my priorities straight and make better value judgments about the work we’re doing (or not doing, as the case may be).

I’m keeping my head in the game. I keep reading, researching, and refining my beliefs about child development, parenting, and education. I don’t want to follow a method of schooling blindly or without thoughtfulness. Part of my responsibility as a mother and educator is working at it like a job, like it matters as much as any other career or vocation. That requires focus and energy in developing my skills so I can serve my family well. As I adopt an educational philosophy and method that excites me to teach, it makes walking through a difficult season a lot easier.

I’m leaning on community. Making “girlfriends” is not easy for me, but I’m trying to stretch myself. Some of this involves presence on social media and using it be inspired and encouraged by other homeschooling families. Some of this involves inviting myself into the lives of other women who are further along in the journey than I am. And some of this involves making time for friendships with women of all ages and life stages that hold me up through a difficult season and vice versa.

(Sidebar: Please, if you know me in real life and feel like we should be friends, let’s make it happen.)

And, lastly, I’m reminding myself that this is just a season. Kids grow fast and the one year-old who is driving me crazy today will be talking tomorrow and then riding a bike and, someday, driving a car. (WHAT!?)

This year is hard. But this too shall pass. And I’d rather make the most of the luxury of keeping these kids around the house all day than wish them gone.

Peace, Love, and Understanding

I watched a Twitter firestorm yesterday.
In the scope of the entire “twitterverse,” as they call it, it’s probably small potatoes. But this particular storm made my heart hurt and got me thinking (again) about the nature of communication and the prevalence of misunderstanding, as well as the resolute “your opinion doesn’t actually matter”-ness of contemporary American culture.

We are obsessed with being heard.
I submit, as evidence, the existence of Twitter in the first place and the very existence of this blog.

Sometimes, wanting to be heard is justified as there have been many marginalized voices in our country (and in our churches) and amplifying those voices is appropriate. But being heard, I’d argue, is not enough. We want to be understood.

But being understood is much, much more difficult. And understanding requires much more work than most of us are willing to put forth–especially for the sake of strangers.

At one point, a hallmark of liberalism was open-mindedness and the ability to tolerate a difference of opinion. But most modern-day liberals have no interest in either of those things. Liberalism’s new cousin–progressivism–is a different animal entirely and is just as intolerant and other-phobic as its original enemy: conservatism.

I mean this criticism in good humor because I have plenty of friends and family on both sides of the equation and I think most of them (ha!) are decent people with good intentions. I would gladly defend them to their opposition if the need arose but, if I’m honest, I’ll admit that they are most all plagued by an inability to understand each other.

In fact, most of us are.

The twitter “fight” I saw yesterday was between a prominent Christian thinker/writer and a contingent of his personal and ideological critics. It was an honest-to-goodness “cluster****,” as they say, and it was ugly.

I know it’s not really my job to moderate the conversations between strangers, but I always feel like I need to do it. People are just so unfair to each other, often attributing only the worst of intentions to their opposition. They are inflammatory. Derogatory. Absurd and dishonest. All the while, they assert their own personal integrity and moral superiority.

I’ve done it too.
There have been times when my disagreements were so intense and I was so indignant and proud that I stood by things I did or said that I should have never done or said, even after I knew they were wrong to do or say. And it didn’t matter a lick to me how my words or actions affected the people around me. All I wanted was to win. And I most definitely did not want to learn from someone else or change.

But, see, I’ve also been on the other side.
My words have been twisted into something I never intended. I’ve been called names I didn’t deserve to be called. I’ve had friends become enemies because of what they heard instead of what I actually said. And I’ve felt that terrible, aching feeling of being deeply misunderstood.

Empathy is not my strong suit, but I empathize with those who feel misunderstood, whether it’s because they are simply not good with words or because they’ve been backed into a rhetorical corner by someone who is better. It feels terrible. And it’s a terrible thing to do to someone.

Our disagreements aren’t going away anytime soon. Polarization seems to be the flavor of our culture today. And though I am not the arbiter of mutual understanding, I can’t walk by such ugly fighting without at least suggesting the rules change. If we don’t practice a little ideological empathy, we will eventually be incapable of actually hearing anyone the way they intend to be heard. And that will be a sad, sad world indeed.