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.

 

 

 

Some Suggestions for #GivingTuesday and Beyond

When the holiday season rolls around and minds wander to gift lists and shopping trips, I know a lot of us also consider an extra boost in our charitable giving. I worked in the non-profit sector for 11 years. My husband has worked in the sector for over 9. My parents are on a missionary salary. And one of my brothers is a pastor. So, heck, I don’t care if the only reason you’re giving is for a tax deduction. I know that nonprofits depend on your giving and I’d like to encourage you to give more this season.

Tomorrow (November 28) is #GivingTuesday, a global day of charitable giving organized in response to Black Friday, Shop Local Saturday, Cyber Monday, etc. Nonprofits all over the world are making a push for your donations and, if the projections are correct, giving tomorrow will be enormous.

Whether you donate tomorrow or not, I’d like to offer a few organizations that my family loves, supports, and would suggest for your end-of-year donation.

Local (Cincinnati) and National Organizations-

Habitat for Humanity of Greater Cincinnati a non-profit Christian housing ministry that seeks to eliminate substandard housing locally and globally by building and renovating simple, decent, affordable homes to sell to low-income families in need.

Imago an ecological education organization that is rooted in the concept that living in harmony with the natural world is not only good for the planet, but good for ourselves, our families and our communities. They work for the preservation of urban nature, and provide hands-on green workshops and education programs for youth.

Keep Cincinnati Beautiful “KCB’s education, revitalization and environmental initiatives build community and foster pride in the places where we live, work and play. Our grassroots network of neighbors, sponsors and volunteers put passion to work across all 52 neighborhoods, creating safer, cleaner spaces and a higher quality of life for all Cincinnatians.”

Koinonia Farm– this intentional Christian farm community in Americus, GA is “a demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God.” It is the birthplace of Habitat for Humanity.

Life Forward Cincinnati provides free, confidential, and comprehensive prenatal and parenting services to women in crisis.

MORTAR“Our mission is to enable under-served entrepreneurs and businesses to succeed; creating opportunities to build communities through entrepreneurship”

The Play Librarya library, but for toys!

Point Perk a full-service coffeeshop in Covington, KY, that provides job training and community interaction for adults with disabilities.

United Ministries of Northern Kentucky- a Christian ministry assisting families by establishing a comprehensive system of response to the emergency needs of persons in Southern Kenton County and Boone County.

Woven Oak Initiatives– providing small programs focused on education, mentorship, and community-building in Norwood, Ohio.

Internationally-

Aruna Project, Cincinnati, OH/India- “We free, empower and employ those from the brothel system and bring them into an environment marked by holistic care to help build a bright future.

Leadership Resources, Chicago, IL/worldwide- training indigenous pastors worldwide, especially in places where a seminary education is unavailable or unattainable.

The Parative Project, Cincinnati, OH/India- Designing and selling “products made by businesses that are bringing fair wages, stability, and healing to those who have been freed from human trafficking and poverty.”

Restaurants on Mission, Columbia, South America- “Our goal is to create a global chain of non-profit restaurants that will hire and train individuals from reformation and reintegration programs and provide a step towards a better life. All profits from each restaurant go back into the neighborhoods in which they are located to improve quality of life.”

Real Good For Free: the creative process, fame, and my once-upon-a-time music career

Before I was Liz McEwan, I was Liz Bowater. And, back when I was Liz Bowater, I fancied myself a songwriter. And it’s true that I was a songwriter if all it took to call yourself “a songwriter” was, literally, writing songs. But that’s not enough, is it? Part of the creative process requires not only creating and releasing the product of our creativity, but also having an audience to receive it and (hopefully) appreciate it.

For ten years or so, I spent every extra moment writing and playing music. And those years were a lot of fun. I played some fantastic shows, met some amazing musicians and music lovers, traveled a bit and learned the joys (and loneliness) of days on the road.

When I moved to Cincinnati, my music was a first point of contact for me and was how I met many of my first friends. Cincinnati gave me a warm reception but my “career,” for what is was worth, was short-lived.

The truth is, I was never cut out for a music career. I don’t deal well with criticism and am really uncomfortable with the idea of fame. I’m a decent writer but a poor guitar player. And I don’t collaborate well. I didn’t know the first thing about promoting myself and I guess I simply “didn’t want it badly enough” to push and push and push.

So I self-released one last (mediocre) album back in 2011 and, when it didn’t really get any attention, I just sort of walked away. It was painful but not crushing. Realizing my music was never going to be a big deal was more of a slow acceptance than a moment of shocking realization.

At the height of my songwriting, I was deeply embedded in a crisis of my faith. I was having a hard time connecting with people. I was processing confusing thoughts and relationships and music became an outlet for expression and connection that I didn’t really have anywhere else. It was a bridge from me to other people. (For a taste of my greatest inspiration during this season of my life, read this quote by Frederick Buechner.)

When I stopped writing music about six years ago, it wasn’t on purpose. I tried and tried to put words on paper and to music and it just didn’t work. The proverbial well was just dried up. I think it was a mixture of a) embracing a new season of life that I hadn’t yet figured out how to process creatively and b) lifestyle changes that no longer allowed the same late-night-alone-with-a-glass-of-wine-and-a-cigarette writing method. I was now married with two young kids and things were just different now.

Somewhere along the line, I started pouring my creative, late night energy into blogging and then freelance journalism. These days, my writing gravitates more toward the cerebral. I’m writing more about other people. More about ideas. My own emotional processes, I suppose, are being handled differently.

It’s kind of embarrassing to think back on all the time and energy (and money) I spent trying to build a career from a few dozen decent songs. (And, oh Lord, the promo photos! What a joke, right?) Some of the songs themselves are worth forgetting altogether, to be honest. But I really do miss it. I miss the manic writing sessions. I miss the performing.

Most of all, I think I miss being able to package myself into a song and deliver it to friends and strangers so easily.

When I consider the future of my writing, I do a lot of self-evaluation. I ask myself why I feel so compelled to do this. Why am I willing to stay awake until 2am after a long day of taking care of four young kids just to get the words down? What is so important about these words (musical or not) that I absolutely must get them out of my head and out to someone else? What are my intentions?

I guess the answer to “why” is that it’s complicated. (For a peek inside the introvert writer’s head, read this.) I have sometimes written for selfish reasons and sometimes for idealistic reasons. Sometimes it’s just because I love language and I love ideas and I love engaging with other people about those ideas. Sometimes, especially in the past, it’s because I’m hurting or confused and I don’t know how else to reach out.

I don’t think I can stop writing. But I’m never sure what I’ll write next.

I have ideas for blogs and children’s books and non-fiction books and all sorts of exciting writing projects, including some church music if I can ever find my way back around to that sort of thing.

But one of the things I’ve learned from my experience of trying (and failing, I guess) at building a career at songwriting is that it’s never really just about the music. It’s about the connection. It’s about the bridge that music builds between people and the community those bridges shape.

I’ve also learned that our greatest artistic contributions to the world are only as great as our motives in producing and sharing them. The world can sniff a rat a mile away and can tell in an instant if we’re just one more clanging cymbal, dying to be heard at all costs.

And, lastly, this:

Some people love the things I write. Some people hate them. Most people simply don’t care who I am or what I have to say. A failed music career taught me that. (And taught me to be okay with it.) My job is just to speak the truth as it is and let things fall where they may.

Sidenote: Have you hear this song?

Real Good For Free– Joni Mitchell

I slept last night in a good hotel
I went shopping today for jewels
The wind rushed around in the dirty town
And the children let out from the schools
I was standing on a noisy corner
Waiting for the walking green*
Across the street he stood
And he played real good
On his clarinet, for free.

Now me I play for fortune
And those velvet curtain calls
I’ve got a black limousine
And two gentlemen
Escorting me to the halls
And I play if you have the money

Or if you’re a friend to me
But the one man band
By the quick lunch stand
He was playing real good, for free.

Nobody stopped to hear him
Though he played so sweet and high
They knew he had never
Been on their t.v.
So they passed his music by
I meant to go over and ask for a song
Maybe put on a harmony…
I heard his refrain
As the signal changed
He was playing real good, for free**.

* This is the namesake of my blog, by the way.

** Part of what inspired this post was my decision to dig up all of my recordings and release most of my songs online for free. You can find them here. I kept the most embarrassing ones for myself and those who were there the first time around and have the original hard copies. If you take a listen, let me know which is your favorite. It’s always fun to know.