Soccer practice

Like a lot of parents, I spend quite a bit of time driving to, sitting during and driving home from ball practice. I could try to figure out how many hours are spent in this way, but that would be depressing, like when my twin daughters were newborns and I calculated how many diapers I bought their first year. And, anyway, I’m not much into numbers. I’m more of a words person. Sentences are how I quantify and qualify my daily activities. Words are how I decide if the outcome is worth the expense of my time.

 

I believe in practicing something over and over to get better at it. I believe that mastering a skill doesn’t happen overnight. I believe that learning how to work as a team takes time. I believe that hard work builds character. I believe that a coach or teacher or leader deserves respect and that is strengthened through face-to-face interactions. So, in other words, I believe that practice is a good thing.

 

But there are those times…when it’s rainy and dark and I’m hungry and really behind on laundry, and I see the email that practice is cancelled. Ahhhh! Those three beautiful words: Practice is cancelled. I rejoice because I’d rather be home from the hours of 5:00-9:00 pm. I would love to be in my pajamas in front of the television, instead of sitting in my van and checking the clock to see how long I have until I can drive home.

 

And practice is just a part of being a sports mom. There are also games and the preparation involved in going to these games. You have to be sure all of the equipment and uniforms are accounted for, but sometimes the planning fails me. For instance, last year my son had a game 45 minutes away from home. It was 81 degrees at my house, but at the fields we found 22-mph winds and the temperature dropped 20 degrees. Wearing shorts was not the best choice after all. I made myself into a ball—pulling my knees inside my shirt and wrapping my arms around my legs. I may have also turtled my chin and nose inside the collar of my shirt. Yay soccer!

 

I don’t tell my kids the unpleasant truth concerning how I feel about driving them around, because this would make them feel like a burden. Though kids are a burden in the very literal sense—something to carry, a responsibility, an obligation—my four are loads I gladly shoulder. Precious inconveniences. Treasured encumbrances. Cherished disruptions.

 

Running them to practices and sleep-overs and school and doctor’s appointments can get hectic, but what better way to show them how much I care. Do they always appreciate it? No, of course not! Did you appreciate your parents for all they did for you? I doubt it!

 

But I’m grateful for the opportunities to serve them, and let’s face it, you don’t get into the Motherhood Business for the awards and the shout-outs. Even that one special day devoted to us, Mother’s Day, can be a letdown. Serving without any expectations for praise and gratitude seems almost superhuman, but it’s the definition of humility. I’m not always great at it, but I’m trying and being a mom gives me lots of opportunities to hone my humility skills. And you know what they say: “Practice makes perfect!”

Quality Time

When your first baby is actually a set of twins, you figure out pretty quickly that it’s going to be difficult to create one-on-one time with them. At least that was the case for us. We had our twin daughters first, followed by our older son three years later. Then our youngest son came to us nearly 11 years after big brother was born.

 

I was able to have those moments with my boys—grocery shopping trips, bike rides, ordinary weekdays—while their older siblings were in school, but it was different with my daughters. Early on, my husband carved out little outings with them so that they could have solo time with dad. Sometimes he would take them to get ice cream or to look at puppies at the pet store, just an hour basking in his undivided attention. Now that they are all older, and our schedules are color-coded and overlapping and busy, it’s a lot harder. And since our daughters are fully into their senior year of high school, time feels extra precious.

 

That’s part of what made this last weekend so great. My husband and I took one of our daughters on a college visit out of state. It was only a 48-hour trip with about 12 of those hours spent on the road, but it was just the three of us so that made it special. (For those of you who are keeping score and wanting to call us out on preferential treatment of one twin over another, we made a similar trip with our other daughter last year, only it wasn’t as far away so we didn’t have to make overnight accommodations. Sometimes it’s impossible to be fair in all things, but we try. When my kids ask me which of them is my favorite, I always say it’s the one who is emptying the dishwasher.)

 

We took a tour of the campus and filled out paperwork. Even though we didn’t attend this particular university, my husband and I were prompted by familiar sights and sounds to impart some wisdom from the other side of the college experience. We advised our daughter on things like dorm life, class loads, post-high school dating and cafeteria meals. We told her stories from our college days so many years ago and yet still mostly relevant.

 

It took a lot of coordinating with our other kids and help from a friend to get away from all of the commitments back at home, but it was what we needed to do for this daughter at this time, and it filled up this mom’s tank with some good memories to shore me up for next year when she’ll be six hours away.

 

Whether you have kids or not, there is no replacement for good quality time with those precious souls who are most important to you. If you’ve been wavering on going away on a trip with your people—be it best girlfriends or out-of-town cousins or your spouse—let this be your wake-up call. Jump in the car and go, then generously spend your most valuable currency: your time.

No more playing

On Saturday, I helped my husband dismantle the wooden play set our kids no longer use. When we first bought it, a dozen years ago, it was our daughters’ favorite spot. It had swings, monkey bars and a trapeze bar with rings where I showed them how to “skin the cat.” (That’s where you hold on to the rings and flip your feet over your head.)

 

Along with the swing set, there was a little house just a ladder-climb up. It had real glass windows that slid open and close just like the ones at home. There were shingles on the pitched roof and a plastic, green slide you could whiz down for a dramatic exit.

 

The play set survived a move from our original home to a second location. Soon after we moved it to our current backyard, I spent one hot afternoon painting the inside of the little house: the walls in chalkboard paint so they could add their own decorations and the ceiling to look like blue skies with white clouds and the floor to look like different types of rooms—tile for a bathroom, checkered linoleum for a kitchen, carpet for a bedroom, an oval, braided throw rug for a living room. I painted the inside of the door to look like it had a stained glass window design of white birch trees standing in front of distant mountains.

 

You could argue that I loved the play set as much as they did. But time marches on, and now I have three kids in high school. My youngest is still in elementary school, but he hasn’t shown much interest in it in a few years. Instead, his focus is on the soccer goals standing near the play set or the bike in the garage. My kids just stopped paying attention to the play set.

 

If this were a children’s book, the ending would be different. If it were like The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, you would see the play set giving of itself until all that was left was a few rungs of the ladder and a broken tire swing. Since that would make my kids like the boy in the story—selfish and negligent of the needs and feelings of others, I’m okay with it not being that particular story.

 

If I could choose, I would rather it be like The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton. In that story, the house is built out in the country. It’s lived in and loved on until the bustling city crowds out the area and the little house is hidden by the train lines and the towering skyscrapers. Just when things look bleakest, the descendants of the original owners jack up the house and place it on a trailer. They drive it out to a new place, farther out in the country where it can be lived in and loved on again.

 

Sentimental as I am, I was hoping someone would do the same for our dear play set, but it was too complicated. Taking it apart is hard enough, but reconstructing it would be even harder. A few people looked at the structure, but no one decided it was worth all the hassle. I can’t blame them—it’s been sitting out, exposed to the elements for a while and it shows, but it was sad to pry up pieces and toss them in the bed of the pickup truck before hauling them to the dump.

 

This is one of those necessary phases of parenting. The fact that they don’t play like they used to has been true for a while, but growth is gradual. When you suddenly realize it’s time to box up the Barbies or give away the train table, their evolution out of childhood becomes more tangible. It breaks my heart a little, but I can say for sure that this deep bout of heartache is absolutely worth the years which preceded it. I wouldn’t trade watching these kids play for anything.

Will it eat me?

When Ezra, our African-born son, first came to America, he was 5-years old. In his first five years, he had developed an understanding of the small square of Congo where he lived, showered, ate and played. Though his world was limited, he was old enough to know what was safe and whom to trust. Then he was flown across the world to a new place with a different language, people, food and customs. He had to relearn so much about this new world.

 

When we would read books to him—books about farms and dinosaurs and pigeons and everything in between—he would point to the animals in the pictures and ask, “Me touch-ee him? He eat-ee me?” Never mind the plot, characters and dialogue. Forget about the story’s underlying morals or comparison to modern life. He wanted to get to the crux of what was displayed on those pages—does that pose a danger to me? Once I had explained that dinosaurs were extinct or that cows were docile creatures which give us ice cream, he was ready for the next page.

 

Having always lived here, my understanding was so different than his. For instance, I took for granted that squirrels posed no threat to my safety, but he needed to be informed and then reassured about those meek, little acorn-gatherers.

 

I came to realize that his first year in America was about a lot of things: attachment to his new family, strengthening his body, consistency in his schedule. But the main thing we did was reassure him. You are safe. You are loved. You are not alone. You can trust us.

 

To watch him now, after more than a thousand days home with us, I see an 8-year old boy who jumps in the deep end and rides his bike downhill and throws his body on the ground to stop a soccer ball when he’s playing in the goal. He still asks a lot about the world around him, but he doesn’t hold as much fear for the unknown. His curiosity can be exhausting, so I have to remind myself that this is how he learns and with knowledge comes a decrease in his worrying.

 

I love the way the Books of Psalms and Proverbs regard knowledge. It’s not about whitewashing the truth or ignoring questions. Knowledge is a powerful tool. “Lips that speak knowledge are a rare jewel.” (Proverbs 20:15) Or take Psalm 119:65-68 – “Lord, I am overflowing with your blessings, just as you promised.  Now teach me good judgment as well as knowledge. For your laws are my guide. I used to wander off until you punished me; now I closely follow all you say. You are good and do only good; make me follow your lead.”

 

That’s such a big part of parenting: Imparting knowledge that leads to wisdom that guides us to righteous living.

Why we do difficult things

Parenting is hard. This is the eternal truth I was pondering as I rubbed the back of my ankle right after my older son slammed into it with the grocery cart. You give them a chance to prove themselves, such as saying that they can follow behind you up and down the aisles with what amounts to being a metal battering ram, and sometimes they disappoint you. Being a parent can be a really tough job, but that doesn’t make me want to quit.

 

We have a saying in our house (by we, I mean and by saying, I mean homework time mantra): “When things are hard, we try harder.” It works for memorizing multiplication facts and learning to ride a bike. When a task just seems too difficult to complete, I tell them, “Rossers don’t quit.” Those are my standard pep talk declarations.

 

Other than the obvious reasons not to give up (“Multiplication is something you will actually use your whole life! You just have to learn what 8 times 6 is!”), there are other, ongoing reasons not to quit. Each time we conquer a fear or accomplish a new skill, we add another layer to our confidence. These successes strengthen our resolve, making the next hurtle a little less daunting.

 

I love stories about people who truly overcome adversity to do really great things, people who don’t quit even when things seem impossible and the world tells them they’re no good. An example of this kind of insane rise against all odds is the story of Dr. Ben Carson, famed neurosurgeon and current HUD secretary.

 

Dr. Carson grew up in poverty in Detroit, and he was at the bottom of his class academically. The key to his eventual success was his mother. “I was fortunate enough, you know, to have a mother who believed in me when everybody else was calling me dummy,” he said in a 2005 NPR interview. “She prayed and asked God to give her wisdom. What could she do to give her sons to understand the importance of academic achievement, because we were doing terribly in school. And she came up with the idea of turning off the TV and making us read books…You know, it did incredible things for me because, you know, between the covers of those books you could be anybody, you could go anywhere, you could do anything. And it begins to broaden your horizons. And, you know, within the space of a year and a half, I went from the bottom of the class to the top of the class.”

 

Cresting that hill made the next one seem climbable, and the next one, and the next one. His mother wouldn’t let him and anyone else define him as a “dummy.” She made sure he knew it would be hard work, but it was within his grasp.

 

You have to assume that if we only do easy things, growth will be minimal. And besides, our most important tasks (like parenting) are just supposed to be difficult (like parenting at the grocery store), but we’re not alone. As C.S. Lewis said, “God, who foresaw your tribulation, has specially armed you to go through it, not without pain but without stain.”

Biker wave

While vacationing in Florida and visiting a couple of amusement parks during Fall Break, I came to a realization: We parents need our own biker wave. You know what I’m talking about—a motorcyclist passing a fellow motorcyclist takes his left hand off the handlebar and does a peace sign with two fingers pointing to the ground.

 

It’s a show of camaraderie. It’s a way of saying, “Hey there, fellow human with similar life experiences! I understand a little about you and I think you’re cool!” (Or something like that. I’m not a motorcyclist so I couldn’t say for sure what that small hand gesture means, but it seems positive. All I know is it doesn’t work as well with minivans.)

 

I had this epiphany while watching a mom, dad and two young sons at Sea World. The dad had hit his limit. His older son was whining to the point that he had apparently lost his ability to walk normally. The dad was attempting to move him forward through the crowd and the boy was floppily walking like he was the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Ozbeing forcefully removed from a sit-in against Munchkin oppression.

 

Once they made it to a short brick wall that served the dual purpose of creating a flower bed and providing seating to all of the hot and weary park attendees, the dad roughly sat the son down and told him not to get up. The boy began to cry, maybe from physical hurt but mostly from having his father lose his cool and aim it in his direction, while the dad looked at the Sea World map in his hands.

 

I couldn’t stop watching this scene. It just felt so familiar. Your kids, those darlings you would lay down in front of a bus for, can make you straight up crazy. I noticed right away that this particular family was comprised of adopted children with mom and dad of one skin color and sons of another. So from my own experience, I knew there were so many layers to what was playing out in front of me.

 

The crying son stood and tried to grab his dad around the middle, but the dad peeled him off and told him to sit back down. The mom who had been talking to the younger son sitting in the stroller calmly stepped in and said, “Let him hug you.” But the dad wasn’t ready to receive affection. He was mad. The mom hugged the son instead, and in a few moments they were on the move again, in search of rides or treats or shows.

 

Before we left the park, I saw this same family and the dad was holding the older son in his arms while the boy slept, his face cradled in the dad’s neck and his little arm slung across the dad’s strong shoulder. They had made their peace.

 

I wanted to reach out to this family and say something encouraging. I wouldn’t offer advice or try to show them how to parent their boys. I just wanted to flash that biker wave as if to say, “This is really hard, isn’t it? I’m sorry you guys had that moment of tension and separation, but I bet you get more things right than you get wrong, so keep on going. I understand a little about you and I think you’re cool.”

Trust


As we were walking to school today, my youngest son Ezra closed his eyes and asked me to hold his hand while we made our way down the sidewalk. “Don’t let me run into anything,” he said. “And don’t let me fall.”

 

I promised him I’d do my best. We crossed streets and I navigated his steps over puddles. We didn’t walk side-by-side, like we usually do. Instead, I was a few steps in front, pulling him a bit as he lingered behind me. He was willing to keep going but there was some hesitancy to his strides, like his foot was testing what was in front of him before fully planting it on the hard concrete.

 

When we were more than halfway there, Ezra suggested that we switch. “Now, you close your eyes and I’ll hold your hand,” he proposed. I looked at what was ahead—crossing a busy street where a crossing guard controlled the intersection—and I said it wasn’t a very good idea. Ezra asked why.

 

“Because I’m the grown up and I’m supposed to lead you,” I told him. (Not to mention the fact that the crossing guard would think I was crazy!)

 

“You don’t trust me?” he asked, a tiny bit of hurt in his voice.

 

“It’s not that,” I assured him. “It’s my job to get you to school safely, and it’s your job to follow me.”

 

I think that he does trust me and my husband in most situations, and we’ve worked hard to gain that trust, but allowing yourself to be led isn’t always easy.

 

A search of the word “trust” in the Scriptures uncovers a slew of times when God instructs His people to trust Him. He tells them what will happen if they do trust Him and what will happen if they don’t trust Him. He reminds them of his history of coming through for them in the past. He proves Himself over and over to his people, in spite of their inconsistent allegiance. But, like a good parent, He is often compelled to fulfill his word and punish them. (We can trust Him for that, too.)

 

When I think of leading Ezra down the road, eyes closed and hand firmly grasping mine, I think of Proverbs 3:5,6 – “Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take.”

 

I’m a far cry from being the Perfect Parent my God is, but if I can show Ezra that he can trust an imperfect parent like me, I pray he will be able to put his trust in the One who will never fail him.

Just another day on Venus

As I was listening to the radio recently, I heard some interesting facts about the planet Venus. I already knew a few things, like that it’s the second planet from the sun, which I remember using that old mnemonic device from elementary school: My Very Educated MotherJust Served Us Nine Pizzas (Now that they’ve removed Pluto from the lineup, Mother serves Nachos, by the way). It’s the hottest planet, with a really muggy atmosphere…so pretty much just like Tennessee in August.

 

I didn’t know that it rotates backwards from the direction of most other planets. Hot and spinning backwards is never a great combination for me, think Tea Cups ride at Disney World. But Venus makes it work, lighting up the night as the brightest thing we can see in the sky apart from the moon.

 

The most surprising fact I learned was how slowly Venus rotates. It takes 243 “Earth days” for Venus to rotate once on its axis, making one Venus day. But the planet orbits around the sun in 225 “Earth days”, making one Venus year. Hence, a year on Venus (225 Earth days) is shorter than a day on Venus (243 Earth days). Just let that sink in a minute.

 

In the last few weeks, many of my friends have sent their children off to college, some for the first time. They packed them up and drove them miles from home so their sons and daughters can begin a new and exciting chapter. I still have two more years before this will be a chapter in my daughters’ stories (Chapter titles might include: “Twin Daughters Study Twice as Hard” or “The Library is Her Favorite”).

 

When it comes to evaluating moments like the first day of kindergarten or the first day of college, studying for spelling tests or preparing for driving tests, it’s hard not to say things like: “Where has the time gone? Weren’t they just in diapers yesterday? They can’t be this old!” We say these things because we humans are complicated creatures. Why else would something as measurable and concrete as time have a feeling? We say a Monday feels like a Tuesday. We say that 8:00 pm feels like midnight. We joke that “time flies when you’re having fun.”

 

There are times when we are metaphorically dropped onto the hot, clammy surface of Venus, and we think that the calendar mustbe wrong. We want time to spin backwards or at least stop for a bit so we can catch our breath. It’s easy to feel like we’re waking up from a coma, seeing our kids as if for the first time in years. He used to come up to my elbow, his hair just the right height for me to run my hand across it to wrestle with that cowlick. Now I have to reach up to pat down his unruly tufts of hair, and we’re eye-to-eye. Good grief! How long was I out?

 

But there was no coma, only the day-to-day moments that make up their childhood. The hectic mornings out the door and grabbing supper on the way to ball practice. The busy schedules and the good night hugs. The sweet memories and the discouraging frustrations. That feeling that we only get one chance to do this right because, in the end, it seems so fleeting.

 

So pretend that for today, you are a Venusian—a hot-natured inhabitant of the planet Venus. Make a “New DayResolution,” giving the next 24 hours your attention as if this day were as consequentially important to fully live as a whole year. Treasure the blessings and value what’s really important.

Welcome to Venus!

Hand-watered garden

I once read the phrase “hand-watered garden” in the book East of Eden, and now I think of it each time I water my plants. The author’s intention was to imply that the man who owned the land was a small scale farmer/rancher. He had no complicated system in place to irrigate acres of fertile soil and crops. He just had a dusty plot of land, and he grew enough to feed his family without relying on abundance.

 

I have a few plants I water most every day of the summer. If I skip a day—just one day—the heads of my baby blue hydrangeas I planted in late Spring in the front corner flower bed will be drooping on the mulch and my tomato plants in the tall container on the patio will look dry and shriveled and the flowers in the planters on my porch—the spiky, purple Veronica, the lime green Coleus, the fire red Impatiens—will begin to wilt.

 

I have two watering cans for this task. When we’ve had rain, I fill them up from the rain barrel situated under a downpipe, but lately I’ve been filling up my watering cans with the outdoor faucet. Once full, I carry them in each hand, sloshing and spilling my way over to the plants. Then I refill. The whole thing takes up a good part of my morning, but I don’t really mind it.

 

Today, as I filled and hauled and poured, I remembered that phrase “hand-watered garden” and I savored this chore as if it were a consecration—a carefully performed duty made sacred by its difficulty and importance. Then I was struck by how similarly I felt about my job as a parent.

 

When my kids were babies, I was sleep-deprived because theywouldn’t sleep. They would get their days and nights mixed up or their sore, teething gums would make them irritable and uncomfortable. Now that they are getting older, there are times whenI can’t sleep. I lie awake thinking of their hopes and their future. I worry over seen and unseen forces lurking around, waiting to pounce on their innocence.

 

Like those 55 steps from the house to that corner flower bed, parenting is not a job that can be done from a distance. It’s not always efficient and it’s often very, very hard. Carrying all that we know about the world and how it might hurt our kids is back-breaking, but nurturing a child and walking with her through both the miserable and the glorious is thrilling.

 

When my hydrangeas have been in the ground for a few more seasons, I won’t have to hover over them quite so much. Their roots will be secure and their stems will be stronger. I will still tend to them but in a different way. When my children are old enough to move out, I will need a new kind of strength. As John Steinbeck, also wrote in East of Eden: “Perhaps it takes courage to raise children.”

The prodigal

When my youngest son gets angry, he often gets dramatically pouty. It may start with something as simple as my refusing him one more handful of potato chips. It’s like I’m a snack bartender. I’m mopping up the bar and I see someone who’s tipsy on Cool Ranch Doritos, so I throw the towel over my shoulder while explaining that I’m under mom-bligations to let a person know when he’s has had enough and suggest something to balance out the junk food like an apple.

 

Once confronted and told “no,” he tends to go straight for the Oscar nomination for Best Whiny Pleading. If he’s feeling especially irritable, he’ll play the Runaway Card. There are some for whom running away is a serious proposition and definitely not a joke, so I would not make light of those circumstances. But for my son, it’s a calculated move. He has no intention of actually leaving our property, sometimes he only gets as far as the garage, but he’s wanting to tell me something and test my response.

 

When one of our daughter’s was younger, she would try the same thing. She would announce her intention: “I’m leaving!” and I would set up a camping chair by the house. I would say, “I always want you to be safe, so I’m going to sit here and watch you. Make sure you can see me. If you can’t see me, you’ve gone too far.” I would watch her walk down our very long driveway maybe with a backpack or a baby doll, and when she got to the mailbox, she would turn around and come back. This is what worked for her, my strong-willed girl who had always known me and counted on me to be her mom.

 

For our 7-year old son who’s only been a part of our family for 2 years, I have had to change tack and choose a different approach. When he marches off angrily, I know he wants to punish me. I also know that I am angry, too. I want to go inside and watch TV and let him sort it out alone. But even though my parenting correction was justified, I know that he desperately wants to be pursued.

 

This happened last Saturday. His pouting was like a carrot on a stick leading him to the overgrown field behind our house where the weeds were as tall as he is. I sat at the patio table and watched him as he glanced back at me over his shoulder a few times. The stubborn part of my brain wanted to show him tough love and let him get eaten up by chiggers, but an image came to my mind of a different parent, a fictional father from a story Jesus told in Luke 15.

 

We often call this parable The Prodigal Son. The main idea is that we are like this son, messing up everything and wasting what is good, then finally coming to our senses and turning back homeward. The father is our God, waiting there for us with open arms, forgiving all our stupidity. But I tend to think there are several layers to these stories, and I wonder if we are sometimes called to be the father, too.

 

Did this father stand outside looking toward the road from town for days and weeks and months, praying that his son would come home? Did he keep his love ready for his son’s return by reminding himself that it wasn’t about him but instead about his wayward son?

 

This is my inspiration. When I was given this job as a mom, it was an invitation to grown up, or as the Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13: “When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.”

 

I followed my son to the field and stayed in his general proximity until his anger had subsided. (I may or may not have fibbed and said I saw a snake in the tall weeds to get him motivated.) At bedtime, my husband and I discussed with him about how to calmly tell us how he feels and how his actions will never make us stop loving him. Hours after the initial disagreement, he was finally repentant. And while this is what we parents are ultimately looking for, it became clear to me that my job is not only to work towards favorable behavioral results in my kids but to be there for every step of the process.