There is another new thing in this season. After many years of having children participate in the Shenandoah Valley Children’s Choir, I am finally a participant as a Parent Assistant to the Preparatory Choir.
Little Mae joined choir this year. Since I no longer have infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, I decided to use the time to help out during rehearsals by assisting with check-in and helping the director (restroom breaks, room transitions, Band-Aid passing out, tissue patrol, etc. . .). There are other moms helping, as well, so it is a team effort.
I am not a newcomer to the choir. My adult children sang for years. I traveled to Hawaii as a chaperone with them when my twelve-year-old was an infant in a sling. Her singing siblings were eleven and twelve. Her aunt was also a chorister at the time! There have been many years of sparkling since then. The eleven-year-old grew into a choir director.
There have also been years off.
I am enjoying this new thing in this new season. It is fun to bring my skill set of connecting with children to this space and to spend time with Little Mae in the process. For years I was the mom wrangling lots of littles and frantically trying to sign homework and work out all the schedules.
Now I am the older mom reminding them that to everything there is a season. This is my season to give back.
Irritation mounts as I survey the kitchen. I was the one who asked that a milkshake be made after school. But this? Really?
It looks as if ice cream and milk were slopped into the blender and then the blender was haphazardly turned on with the top off. Yes, that must be what happened. There is a glob of melted ice cream on the floor and a puddle of it on the counter. It is hardening into a solid, sticky mess.
Clearly, someone is in the wrong, and it is not me. I am fuming inside, every ounce of irritation seeping through my pores. It feels as if my skin is on inside out. I am trying to find a way to express frustration appropriately which only has me feeling more inappropriate.
A sibling stands nearby, emptying the trash. A blanket statement is made about a family rule. The undertone is why are you surprised by this? It’s how it is. This incites me more. Really? Who made said rule and why? That is not the case! This mess is not okay.
It is hard to share space with so many other people. Even though I am one of the adults, co-partner, co-creator, co-supporter of our family structure, I can easily slip into feeling like just another one of the kids. These people who live with me, who have come from my body, who I am responsible for, are growing up and getting bigger and taking more ownership of their worlds.
This is a good thing. I am grateful for their growing independence. There are so many good things about them being able to fix their own food and pack their own lunches. Still, when I open the refrigerator to get the milk, and a misplaced jar of strawberry jam falls to the ground, and containers of leftover food totter, packed and stuffed into the wrong places, I feel smothered.
Smothered and alone. The space closes in on me physically, and I can’t find a means of escape. I can’t hide the fury. It won’t stuff back down to its usual place. Escape. Hide. Stuff. These survival strategies are familiar.
I pace to the TV room, just off of the kitchen, trying to sort out all that is stirring inside, trying to justify my anger. The deep breaths I take begin to calm me. I do not need to offload on my children. They do not need to pay for or contain my strong feelings. We can sort through what I am experiencing without me assigning blame.
It takes courage to re-enter and re-engage the sticky scene in a different way, to name and own my strong feelings. It is unfamiliar and feels clumsy. I risk stepping into our shared space and naming how it feels. I choose to let my child really see me own my uncertainty. Grace and hope pour down on the room. Spirits lift. Hope returns, and the moment is redeemed.
Mamas, it’s hard. Mothering is just hard. Maybe not all of the time, and maybe never for you, but it was really hard for me. And in my story, something being difficult to do was not a reason to pause and question it. There was no room for exploring other options or making changes, only soldiering on with the choice that had already been made.
Nineteen years ago I was 27 and had just birthed a 10lb 4oz boy. He was welcomed by his three older siblings, ages 5,4, and 3. Steve and I had been married six years. That is a lot of living and people to fit into a short period of time.
Child number four was not at all like the others. He did not fit any sort of mold, and contrary to what people always said to me, I hear it gets easier after three, nothing could have been further from the truth. Please refrain from offering things that you have heard about situations that you have not experienced to the one struggling in the midst of them. It is truly not helpful.
It did not get easier for me.
There were a lot of hard things to push through and four more babies to follow. I wondered if I would make it. I wondered how something so excruciatingly difficult for me could ever be worth it.
I made it.
It was worth it.
My son and I hiked High Knob together to celebrate his 19th birthday.
He has been there often. Today was my first time. We parked and entered the trail and walked and talked. The sky was a brilliant shade of blue. The leaves were beginning to change. We had the trail to ourselves.
We climbed to the top of the lookout and sat, enjoying the gentle breeze and the stunning view. We shared conversation.
We hiked back to the car, mindfully aware of our surroundings, noticing little things like this wooly bear on the path.
Somewhere along the way, my phone received a wave of service, and several texts dropped into it. One was from my mom, inviting us for coffee to celebrate Kieran and Grammy who share a birthday. We stopped there on our way back to town and captured this picture of the birthday buddies born 75 years apart.
Please don’t give up hope in your hard, whatever that hard may be. I know that it seems easy for me to say, because I am not in your situation. All I know is that today was a glimpse of such sweet goodness and such great reward as my son and I took time together to extract ourselves from the couches and get out into nature together.
It was so worth it. I am grateful for the gift I received on this day nineteen years ago and for the gift I received today.
In the midst of all that feels overwhelming these days, I have been gifted with grace upon grace. From messages from and conversations with heart friends to stumbling upon an old photo album that brought much-needed tears, I feel loved and seen.
Yesterday morning my heart was clenched by a fist of fear. It happens when I carry too much on my shoulders. When the over-responsibility beast rears its ugly head.
I was fearfully checking into something parental, fully expecting a negative outcome. Instead I was surprised by the positive. I know this sounds incredibly vague, but you have to trust me here.
The bottom line is that the discovery felt like a huge hug for my heart. It reminded me that even though the days are long and full, there is goodness happening all around, much of which I don’t even see (or hear!).
I am holding this as a reminder to the catestrophic thinker in me to continue trusting that God is always at work completing the goodness begun in us all. There is much goodness.
I can hold onto and trust in that. I can practice seeing the positive. I can release the over-responsibility and wait to see what will happen.
It is day three of my new normal. The kids are in school for a few more hours. The house is silent. I am shifting and settling into something that might eventually resemble a routine, just not yet.
When I was teaching, I would give myself three weeks to a month before making a judgment on whether the year was working or not. It always ended up working just the way it was supposed to. Adjusting takes time.
I am adjusting.
Rising early to get the day started with the family, without the added pressure of getting myself somewhere on time has been a pleasant adjustment. Learning the new kitchen dance of school mornings, without the demand of getting everyone out the door like a well-oiled machine, has made things more calm and less chaotic.
This year we are in three different schools, down from our record of five. We drop off and pick up this batch of kids, the ones who were babies when their elder siblings were riding buses. While you cannot do over, you can choose to do differently. You can also have conversations about how others were affected by the choices you made.
Lots of those hard conversations are happening now that I have more unstructured time. No two, or eight, children grow up in the same family. I am adjusting to hearing truth and experiences shared with me from all of the perspectives, as the next generation steps up into the shoes of the first, and the first navigates adulthood. It looks a lot different this go around, especially as there are no infants, toddlers, and preschoolers in the equation.
The first two hours of my day focus on getting people fed and where they belong. When I arrive home after the final drop-off, Dewey eagerly runs to his leash, ready for a morning walk. This has become the beginning of a routine for us, as I walk him and think about the day. Sometimes a sister calls, or I call a sister (or daughter).
I am working out the time at home between drop-off and pick-up. I still have a brain racing to think of all of the things, when it really needs to slow down. I am practicing slow. I am not getting to all of the things. I get to some. I am learning things about myself that cannot be learned at breakneck speed.
This is where I am. I am grateful for the space to figure out what is next and the gift of learning to be more present in what is now.
How about you, Dear Readers? Where does this start of the new school season find you?
We were talking about the day and about feelings and life. I told him about an upcoming trip that had me feeling nostalgic. He told me about an incident he had witnessed over the weekend that turned on my tears.
He began to apologize. There was no need. He had done nothing wrong. I was feeling my reality. The tears were inviting me into more of it.
Last week we were on vacation. We had a beach day. Every year we take the same lunch in the cooler.
Polska kielbasa cut into slices
Easy cheese in cheddar and American styles
sodas and water
some kind of fruit
When I am well-prepared there are also paper plates and napkins. This year was a not-well-prepared year. We had to live dangerously, risking dropping the can of cheese in the sand or the cracker in the sand, or the meat into the sand.
All to be coated in sand.
There is always a lot of sand. Some people like the added texture. It is a lunch not for the faint of heart. It is the beach.
This year I noticed a can of Cheese Wow! mixed in with the name brand cheeses. My husband had offered to do the grocery run when we arrived in town to start our vacation. For a good $3 less, it was quite comparable.
But you have to say Cheese Wow!
So in the kitchen today, as my tears began to squeeze out of my eyes, I couldn’t hold them back. No matter how hard I tried to keep them in, they came squirting out.
Easy Tears just like the Easy Cheese at the beach. Just as salty, too.
I have a lot of them inside, crashing like the ocean’s waves.
A smiling face wished me well at the very end of a particularly long day. It had been a particularly long week that led to a moment where I felt tired and not too fond of mothering. I received both the smile and the words in the spirit offered, though I struggle with Mother’s Day every year.
I’m never having kids! They’re brats, and they don’t listen to you!
My teenage self made this vow that obviously did not stick. Of course kids didn’t listen to their eldest sister, even when she is supposed to be in charge. Especially then. My adult self gave birth to eight children, four of whom have reached adulthood, and four who are still on their way.
I remember being 27, having just birthed my fourth child. It was a ten-pound, four-ounce boy who shocked and surprised us all. Where were you hiding him? asked the midwife. I was not unusually large and had not gained excess weight. I was in love once I regained consciousness and energy.
Baby number four rounded out the bunch, giving us two boys and two girls. I thought it was the perfect number of children and remember thinking I would be content to be finished. People wouldn’t ask if I was trying for a particular sex or if I was disappointed to not have a particular gender or any number of the rude things they feel entitled to chime in about when you have a family of a certain size.
There was one technical difficulty. I didn’t have a voice to express this, nor did my husband have the ears to hear me even if I could. So there was a bind that is still being processed and sorted. We are still finding words for the story of us.
In my 30’s more children came. Four more, to be exact. When all was said and done, eight children were grown in and birthed from my body, one at a time. People ask. That is a lot of pregnancy, birth, postpartum, breastfeeding, diapering, hormones, mothering. A lot.
Eight children is a lot and my hard thing.
Four children was my perfect family size, and I would tell you if you asked. I would even joke that it was so perfect that I did it twice, including baby bunching when I had four kids under the age of five. Twice. It brought goodness, and it brought grief.
I have struggled with my story of mothering. I have cringed at the assumptions made about me by people who have no idea. I have grieved my departure from the lives of my bigs when caring for the littles was all-consuming. I have wept over what I have tried to, but could ultimately not, control.
Then God, in incredible, generous kindness, brought healing to this place in my heart during the final weekend of my certificate training in Seattle.
Rachael Clinton was teaching from Isaiah 61. As she read the passage, I heard these words
Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion; Instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot; therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion; they shall have everlasting joy. Isaiah 61:7 (ESV)
My heart was touched in the deepest of places, as I felt a shift from duty to delight, from obligation to honor, from fear to freedom. In that moment I heard God say, I have given you a double portion.
In our family, electronics are specifically limited to very strict rules. These are some of the original rules with pros and cons.
Rule one: “You are not allowed to possess any electronics under the age of ten”. It doesn’t sound so bad, and sometimes it isn’t. But as times change, and more electronics are made, this rule gets harder to deal with. By this year, most children have electronics by the age of eight or nine, and those who don’t begin to want one by nine. One pro of this rule is kids spend more time doing other things, though this isn’t always true. A con is that with music, young kids have more ways to deal with problems. One idea I suggest for those of you who are considering adding this rule to your own family list is to let your kids have music devices, as well as simple electronics like a gameboy or tablet for trips or special use.
Rule two: “You are not allowed to possess a phone until the age of sixteen”. This is possibly the hardest rule for kids. By sixth and seventh grade, the last few children who don’t have phones begin to get them, leaving the families with stricter parents with not many ways to contact family or communicate with friends. This gets harder as kids get older, their friends begin getting phones, and more phones are made, as well as more uses for phones. Doesn’t a tear come to your eye just thinking about the poor children, sitting alone, set apart from society from lack of a phone? Plus, quite a few children live in neighborhoods with not many to even no children their age, as I do. They don’t have friends their age to hang out with, and no phone to contact the friends that live elsewhere. Having a phone also helps contact people for important reasons, and there are many more needs for a phone today then there were when my parents first made this rule. Let me put it this way: what would you do if Abe Lincoln came back from the past, grabbed your stove, microwave, lights, computer, salt lamp, and ran away? Exactly. I see you moms crying, thinking about someone stealing your precious salt lamps. I know, nothing can truly convey the misery of a phoneless middle-high schooler, because though many parents these days know what it was like to not have something everyone else had back in school, only about nine percent of parents today knew what a phone was back then. And even then, not everyone would have had one.
Rule three: “Children below the age sixteen have a strictly set amount of media per day”. This is possibly the second worst rule, right below the phone rule. It started with the token system, of course. You had tokens, each equivalent to fifteen minutes of computer or game console. However, when one of my sibling got smart and used them all at once for two hours of media, and other siblings found new ways to make it seem like they were following the rule, this system evaporated. And for you kids reading, here’s a way to cheat the system: One way is to rattle the token box to make it seem like you put tokens in. Another is to buy your own set of poker tokens. Thank me later. After this, the situation was fifteen minutes of media a day. Can you hear the 22nd century crying? But as attitudes changed about this rule, it was fifteen minutes only on weekends. Wow, this is worse than a horror movie. And now it’s an hour and fifteen minutes on weekends. This rule is okay, unless it’s your own electronic. For more about this, see the next rule.
Rule four: “Hmm, you spent how much money to buy your own electronic? Well, too bad, ‘cause it’s mine now”. The new 0.5 worst rule in the world. After age ten, you have an option to buy electronics if you use your own money. But no sir, that doesn’t mean you can use them! One example of this was my laptop. Now, like phones, laptops aren’t allowed until the age sixteen, but this was an exception. That is, until someone cracked it and mom and dad decided not to let me get a new one. Well, back when I had it, I was almost never allowed to use it. Mom and Dad hid it in their room, never let me have it on weekdays, never let me use it in my room, often made me sit at the dining room table, and only gave me about half an hour a day. Once I forgot my password, and when I asked Dad he wouldn’t tell me, so I couldn’t even unlock it. Dad was taking full advantage of me forgetting. In my opinion, you should let your kids have laptops, know the password, and use them whenever. I didn’t pay over a hundred dollars I made cleaning buildings to never get to use the laptop I bought. Oh wait, I did.
Rule five: “No privacy”. I hate this rule, as did many other siblings. Dad and Mom used to let us close the computer cabinet so we wouldn’t have people looking at what we were doing over our shoulder. But for a while, Dad has forced us to keep the door open. I wouldn’t suggest a family computer in the dining room, by the way, either, if privacy is even a bit important to you.
Rule six: “You aren’t allowed to listen to anything even slightly bad on the radio”. This rule was worst when Shannon was a kid. She had her own taste in music, but often couldn’t listen to what she wanted. Now, though there aren’t as many limitations, we still can’t listen to anything.
If possible, I might add onto this list later, but I have one suggestion for parents considering these rules: You don’t understand your kid as much as you think you do. You need to listen to them, and consider trusting them. Don’t try to make up their minds for them, or guess about what will happen if you get them something. You’re not them.
Today that looks like still being in lounge wear at 3:17. No condemnation. The voices try, but I choose to refuse to listen. At least in this moment.
Day two of Christmas break has been a full one. Somehow I passed enough kitchen skills along to an eleven-year-old that she was able to mix up the gingerbread cut-out cookie dough by herself while I drove her brother to practice saxophone with Grandpa.
When I returned, she was ready for her little sisters to join her in rolling and cutting out Christmas cookies. I mixed up another batch for the inevitable, Can we make more?, but I did not have to be involved with any rolling out or cutting. I only had to slide pans in and out of the oven.
I did have to listen to conflict which just about did me in. I let them resolve it, though, and things were fine.
I messaged with a friend who is in a similar-yet-different season of hard, because the hard doesn’t have to look the same to struggle through it together. Just like our cookies didn’t all look alike coming out of the cutters or out of the oven.
Christmas cookie theology? Don’t worry. I’m not going there.
But wait. The crumbly broken deliciousness. . .nevermind.
So I am writing this mainly for myself and the ambivalent struggle I am currently having with my words. Feeling paralyzed about writing anything, because I feel so behind in life, I choose to combat that you’ll never catch up lie (or actually truth, because I won’t) and just jump in.
Would Shannon’s mom report to the mall office, please? Shannon’s mom to the mall office.
My heart is in my throat as I step from the carpeted floor of Centerpointe, the Christian bookstore in the mall next to JC Penney, to the sleek tiled floor of the mall’s common ground. Already, time has passed too slowly and too quickly in my search for a preschooler entrusted to my care, not for a few hours a day, but for LIFE.
I am failing at it. I can’t even keep track of ONE small child. How can parents continue to trust me to care for their children day after day? In that moment, all I feel in my brain is the relief that Shannon is found and only gave her first name. What if someone heard that Mrs. McClay had lost a child? I would never be trusted again.
How did this happen?
It was supposed to be a quick, after-work trip to the mall, bringing my youngest child along for some quality time together. We entered through the Walmart anchor end, making the long trek past all of the stores towards our destination at polar opposite.
She noticed the coin-operated merry-go-round and asked to ride it. Not now was my response, because I had no change, and we had places to go. Let’s be honest, my response was usually not now, because, well, just because.
Today we are pressed for time, because I have just gotten off of work, and there are things that I need to look for before heading home to fix supper and get on with the evening. There are always things to get to. Always that next thing.
We enter Centerpointe, precursor to Family Christian Store, and I begin to look in earnest for whatever it is that I need. I enjoy it here, because there is a play area for kids in the back where VeggieTales videos loop and books and toys are accessible, while moms like me peruse the latest CDs and Christian books and tchotchkes.
Shannon is into VeggieTales, these days, so much so that her birthday party was a VeggieTale theme, so I am more than happy to oblige when she asks if she can go to play with the toys.
I scan the CD display, searching for something new, that I know will lift my spirits, though I won’t be able to buy it. I remain lost in thought for a few minutes before returning to reality and heading to the back of the store for my girl.
I find emptiness.
The play area is empty.
Bob and Larry sing silly songs to an empty chair. There is no little girl in sight.
Panic rises in my chest as I run to the front of the store where a cheerful, curly-haired cashier is ringing up a purchase.
Did you see a little girl walk out of the store?
Looking at me with concerned eyes, she shakes her head. She has not seen a child, but she has been busy ringing up purchases. I feel her care and concern as shame washes over me. She is doing her job. I am clearly not doing mine.
It is at that moment, in the front of the store, that I hear the mall loudspeaker calling for me, and I rush out to the mall office.
Scooping Shannon into my arms, I have never been so happy to see a little face.
Well, you SAID I could play with the toys, so I went out to try to find them, but I went the wrong way.
The toys. The TOYS. The merry-go-round. She was asking to go play on the merry-go-round.
We talk it over and realize where she made a wrong turn, and where I made a wrong assumption, and I tell her I am glad that she was able to say her name so that I could come and find her. We leave the mall together with a memory and the huge relief of being reunited.
I have been Shannon’s mom for 21 years, now. I love her and how she has helped me to grow and become a better mother and person. I am realizing that there will always be wrong turns and wrong assumptions, but if we remember our name and ask for help, the reuniting is sweet and the memories are rich.
This is from Shani’s first birthday. Her face captures her essence even at a year old. Those big eyes and that furrowed brow speak volumes. I just want to scoop her up and hold her close again. Love those babies, Mamas!!! Time really does fly. Happy 21st, Little Angel!