On Motherhood in a crisis

The last week has been a whirlwind of stress, pain, exhaustion and moments of absolute clarity.  It all started last Thursday when my husband and I learned that his father had been injured in some sort of accident on the job and had been rushed to the hospital.  We live several states away, so there was immediate panic.  How bad is it?  Is he going to be okay?  Could we get my husband out there if we needed to?  Thanks to the generosity of my parents, my friends, and a handful of random strangers, we were able to raise the funds and airline miles to fly my husband out to be with his family.  As I’m writing this, my father-in-law has yet to regain consciousness, although his eyes sometimes open and his fingers sometimes move, which is better than where things had been.

It is so surreal, being out here while my husband is out there, trying to be the still point in a turning world when the center of gravity seems out of place.

I can’t say I know how hard it has been on my husband.

I do know, to some degree, how hard it has been on my children.  I can’t say how many times in the past week it seemed like the household turned from happiness to panicked chaos in a split second.  One moment we’re talking about our favorite My Little Ponies, the next minute it’s, “what happens if Pappy dies?”  One second it’s plans for the Minecraft server, the next it’s, “what if Pappy stays alive but never wakes up?”

Questions I can’t answer.  I long for the good old days of just having to explain that it is dark earlier because of the way the earth tilts on it’s axis and that the sky looks blue because of how our brain interprets the refraction of light.  That stuff is child’s play compared to explaining how when there’s bleeding inside of the brain, the brain can’t send signals the way it should and…  ugh.

We’re walking through the store and it’s this ghost that haunts us.  I want to lay down and cry, but I can’t.  I have to buy the groceries and clean the fridge and fold the laundry and check the homework and cook the meals, and meanwhile these questions follow me around the house in the irresistible and unignorable form of my children, panicking every time I have to think before answering.  “Why can’t Pappy talk on the phone?  Will he ever talk on the phone?”  I cook the food, I serve the food.  We sit around the table and try to act like nothing is missing.  “I don’t like eating at the table without Daddy.  Can we just watch a movie?”

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Time for bed.  Time to try to act like we can do this.  Change into pajamas, brushing teeth.  Here come the tears again.  “I don’t like going to sleep without daddy praying first.”  “We can try to call daddy.”  “Daddy is with Pappy.”  And here it comes again.  The kids keep getting out of bed, coming to see what I’m doing.  Wipe the tears quickly before they pop their heads in the room.  Smile.  Keep smiling.  Tuck them back in, again and again.  Be firm but not angry.  You have to sleep, you have to go to school in the morning.  Yes, it’s very sad that daddy isn’t here and we don’t know when Pappy will wake up, but in the meantime we have our lives to live.

Monkeypants keeps me up until midnight.  I sneak a few moments of silence before laying down, wake up before everyone else so that I have a moment to clear my head.  Wake the kids up with tickles and laughter, try to keep the questions at bay.  On the way to school they creep back in.  “My teacher asked about Pappy, what do I say?”  Smile, say that we’re keeping hope, we’re staying positive, daddy will be back home soon.  “Will Pappy wake up before daddy comes home?”  We can’t know.  “What if Pappy doesn’t wake up?”

Whatever happens, we’ll be okay.  We have each other and we love each other.

“Don’t fall down and hit your head until your brain bleeds,” my son says in a very serious voice.

I put my hand over my heart, “I promise to try not to,” I say, “but no matter what happens, you would be okay.  I know you would.”

He shakes his head, “I don’t like the fact that people get hurt and die,” he says.

No one likes that.  Who would?

Another bedtime, this time with less tears.  Another night where I’m up past midnight, putting them in bed again and again and again.  I wonder how little sleep I need to survive.  6 hours a night doesn’t seem like quite enough.  I make coffee in the mornings, I never make coffee.  I smile.  The questions are quieter today.  They aren’t always asked, but I see in their eyes, I see the questions they aren’t asking so I smile, I hold them tight, I speak softly as I check the homework and put out the food.  The questions always come out eventually.  “How much blood can come out of a brain?  Like, all the blood in the body?”

Gosh, that’s a good question.

“Do they put more blood back in him?  How does that work?”

I need to take more physiology classes.  The two weeks we spent on the brain in Psychology are not enough.  We Google things and talk about them.  “I hit my head on everything.  It seems stupid to put something as important as a brain in somebody’s head when they might just fall down and break it forever.”

We talk about miracles and people who come out of comas after months or years.

“I don’t want Pappy to be asleep for that long.”

No one does, but Pappy’s job is to sleep and heal and our job is to wait.

Another day, and another.  I find myself randomly nodding off on the couch while Monkeypants plays in the other room.  Wake up!  It’s not over yet.  My job is to stay awake and wait.  And I wonder, how long can I hold off my own questions, my own tears?  How long can I keep showing them how to be brave and keep hope?

8 days in, I realize the truth.  I can do it as long as I have to.  I can do it forever.  As long as their eyes are watching me, I can do whatever is asked of me, because in proving to them that everything will be okay, I prove it to myself.

Executive Potential

So the other day Sheryl Sandberg was on the Daily Show, and she said something that stuck with me.  She was talking about how when boys start telling other boys what to do on the playground they are applauded as “natural leaders”.  Girls, in the same situation, are told not to be bossy.  If you really want girls to be equal, the language used to describe them should be equal. Why can’t a girl who tries to organize and get people to cooperate with her simply be told she has executive potential?

This came up this morning as Princess was trying to get everyone up and around.  We’d told the kids we’d see a movie this afternoon if the morning went well.  “Hold on,” Princess said, “I want to get the rules right.  We need to get dressed and eat breakfast and play nice, and then we get the movie, right?”

Right.

A few minutes later we heard Princess lecturing Fighter on why he needed to stop goofing off and get dressed and go downstairs for breakfast.  My husband and I shared a knowing glance and groan about Princess’s constant need to have things organized and running like a well-oiled machine, including her brother who always flies by the proverbial seat of his proverbial pants.  But when Princess came back downstairs my husband gave her a hug and said, “guess who has been exercising her executive potential?”

Princess looks at me.  “What’s that mean?”

“Well,” I said, “one day do you think you’ll be running a company and making sure everyone follows the rules and gets their work done on time?”

“If they don’t I’ll ask them if they want a job,” Princess says with a grimace.

“The executive is the person who writes down the rules for everyone else,” I said.

“I’ll write down the rules for being good at the movie theater,” Princess said, and went off in search of a pen.

There’s this principal in psychology called perceptual framing.  The same set of circumstances can have completely different emotional outcomes depending on the way in which the events are framed.  If a person believes that something is good, they will likely experience a good emotional outcome from it even if another person, who believed it was bad, experienced a bad outcome.  This can be seen in people who have debilitating injuries, some people view it as an unexpected blessing and others as a curse.  What we choose to think of our everyday lives is really the wheel that steers our emotions, and not the other way around.  And, personally, I’d much rather be raising a daughter with executive potential than a bossy pants.  Choosing to frame her in that way, it’s clear how I can help her hone her gifts to the best possible reward instead of squelching them.  Then, I wonder how many other areas of my life I’ve killed good growth in because of how I chose to view challenges.

As my political science teacher says, “judgment can only come after testing, testing can only come after wondering, and wondering can only come from an honest observation of how life works.”

How often do we do things in the opposite order?  As Princess would say, first we need to understand the rules.

Life with Dogs.

Two things happened back to back this week that have left me feeling unusually contemplative.  The first is that my dog Charlie was in a car accident.  She seems to be healing well, nothing was broken and there doesn’t seem to be any kind of permanent damage, but it made my heart stop.  I called the dogs in and one came but the other didn’t.  The neighbor dogs were all wining and jumping at their fences which was so strange, because normally they bark at me.  I saw a truck pulled over off the side of the road and a man holding what at first looked like a black garbage bag.  Then my heart dropped out of my body because I realized it was my dog.  I ran over and waved him down, and he handed me the dog and said, “it’s bleeding.”

All I could think was that she HAD to be okay, there was not a universe in which she was allowed to leave us so soon after joining our family.  My daughter adores her and uses her as a pillow and a napkin and a blanket and her silent partner in crimes.  She’s not even two yet, she doesn’t know about things dying.  And she’s way too young to know.  I saw that Charlie was bleeding, from behind one ear.  Her hair was matted there, and she wasn’t even looking at me.  I took her inside, wrapped her in a couple of towels, and set her down on the couch while I tried to figure out what to do.  Her brother, Sparkle, started flipping out, alternating between licking her face and asking to play and yipping at me and pulling on pants to try to get me to do something.  Of course I had no idea what to do.  By that point, it had only been a few minutes, Charlie was already starting to make a little sound and move around.  I felt like we had all just barely missed a huge tragedy.  What if I hadn’t seen the man get out of the truck?  What if I’d waited a few more minutes to call in the dogs?  What if, what if, what if.

But “what if” didn’t happen.  Charlie is going to be fine.

The next day, Neil Gaiman’s dog died.  All I can think is that it’s this huge thing, to lose a pet.  Our pets are in a very real way a part of ourselves.  They give us back a part of ourselves that we don’t have to acknowledge if we live without them.  There is a part of man that was made to be in the wilderness, to tend to wild things.  When we invite wild things into our homes we bring that part of ourselves back to life.  There’s also a tenderness they teach us that nothing else can.  Sometimes we don’t realize what our mood is, when we are angry or sad, but our dogs know.  They’ll play with us when we’re playful and when we are angry they will give us that lookthe ears flat on the skull, head butting against our shins look, the look that says, this is painful, please don’t be this way.”

Dogs also make you be responsible.  If you don’t pick up your jammies, they claim them.  If you leave out the legos they eat them.  If you don’t clean up the lunch, they appropriate it.

I wouldn’t want to have to live without them.  I’m glad I don’t have to yet, but I know that my daughter will probably still be too young to have her driver’s license when Charlie does die, and that breaks my heart.

But, still, I think that even if she did understand death right now she would gladly bear the pain of it later to have her pillow, her blanket, her conspirator, her closest friend to stay at her side now.  And I wouldn’t give up Charlie now to spare that pain later, either.  That pain is the price we have to pay for keeping our whole selves alive.

 

It’s okay.

Baby and Charlie

Culture and Faith.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the affect that culture has on faith.  It seems impossible to divide the two with any cleanness.  Why?  We are human.  While we may conceptually believe that there is one fundamental, immutable, unchangeable truth and that God is the embodiment of that absolute, how can we ever fully understand it?  We do not have divine minds.  We have human minds, and inevitably any taste of the absoluteness of God’s nature we have, we interpret through fallible brains.  We judge and mold our faith based off of what we feel is right, a feeling that is the culmination of what we’ve experienced.  Our experiences, those things that mold our understanding, are basely human and only remotely touched by holiness.

If you doubt for a moment that is true, just consider the Bible.  In Biblical times if a woman was raped but didn’t scream, she should be stoned.  It’s what the Bible demands.  Do you feel like that is right?  If a man punched a pregnant woman in the stomach and she miscarried as a result, she should be paid a pittance.  Yet today people will cry out that fetuses are human life as valuable as the born- if God feels that abortion is murder, should abortion by violence really be something that one can pay off with shekels?  Why would God say that it is?

It goes beyond that.  There’s also the fact that so many of the fathers of the faith, so to speak, had multiple wives and concubines.  Jacob’s marriage to both Leah and Rachel is often preached as a sermon on the value of faith and persistence, with the fact that he favored Rachel’s bed to the detriment of Leah and her just inheritance is glossed over.  There’s David, the man after God’s heart, who had how many wives and concubines?  Of course he took Bathsheba wrongly but the Bible is clear that his sin wasn’t marrying one woman too many- it was coveting what rightly belongs to someone else and murdering to get it.  Solomon, the wisest of all kings, had so many wives and concubines he couldn’t have slept with each more than two times in a year.  Yet how do we interpret all of that in light of this current day’s conviction that God intended for marriage to be between one man and one woman?

The truth is, we simply ignore the history that is there and rewrite it.  The idea that marriage should only be between one man and one woman is one that evolved as a response to cultural pressures.  If you married your daughter off to a wealthy man to ensure your family’s inheritance, you wouldn’t want that being fudged up by his later picking a superior mate and bequeathing that inheritance to her spawn instead of yours.  Polygamy died out not because God gave a new word, but because people rationally decided it isn’t a sustainable social system.  Nowhere in the Bible does God say, “one man, one woman.”    He says for this reason a man leaves the home of his parents and becomes one flesh with his wife, but that isn’t a statement of doctrine, it’s a euphemism for sex.  Clearly the people that wrote that part of the Bible didn’t interpret it as “one man, one woman” or they wouldn’t have praised Solomon for marrying more women than he could bed.  Besides the fact that if bucking that law leads to the deterioration of society and God revoking his blessing, why would God have so blessed Jacob?  Solomon?  The myriad of men who kept harems of wives and lovers?  It simply does not stand up under sustained thought, and that isn’t the only place where people start to mold faith to culture.  It’s just one that really stands out in my mind.

I think about these things a lot, because when I start to question why God gave the directives he did I start to question how I dress, feed, and raise my family.  I start to feel like prepackaged foods aren’t “clean” or worthy of my consumption, I start to feel like if God laid out the Levitical code today he’d condemn clothes made out of cheap materials in sweat shops.  I start to wonder about a lot of other things, too.

My point is that we can’t just blurt out what we “sense” is true about our faith without applying history, knowledge of culture, and the caveats of our own fallibility.  After all, we don’t know what God said, we know what people interpreted Him as having said.  Yes, we have the Bible.  That doesn’t mean that we understand it.

We interpret it.

And we, as humans, often only interpret what we want to hear.

Brave, Gender Identity, and my personal hatred of stereotyping.

So yesterday I saw something very interesting.  It was an article about whether or not the heroine in the new movie Brave is gay.  The argument was that she wasn’t interested in marrying one of the three ill-matched potential husbands her parents had lined up for her, was athletic, and liked hunting.  So, obviously, gay.  As the writer of the article argues, clearly she could be gay because she’s not interested in her traditionally proscribed gender role.  I had to do a Scooby double-take for that, because for some reason none of my gay friends have ever explained to me that the motivating drive behind their self-identifying as homosexuals is their lack of interest in traditional gender roles.  Here I thought that being gay was defined by one’s sexual indentity, not choice of hobbies.  How naive!

I’m bothered by the whole idea of Merida being gay.  Not because I think it’s a bad thing for anyone to be gay, but because I think it’s a bad idea to work off of mistaken stereotypes.  Merida’s struggle to define herself as strong, capable, and worthy is cheapened if the only reason she doesn’t want to get married is because she’s gay.  Making her a stereotype deadens the impact of her experience.  Not only that, but it more narrowly defines what a straight girl ought to be.  Are women not allowed to be athletic unless they want their sexuality questioned?  Are they not allowed to be brave?  Individualistic?  Are they not allowed to balk at tradition?

Human sexuality is a huge and complex thing.  Sociologists for decades have been pointing out that rather than being a distance between two poles of “gay” or “woah buddy definitely not the slightest bit gay”, sexuality is instead a plane of many spectrums, which as many possible manifestations as there are people.  Most humans, it’s been demonstrated, find themselves as a mixture of the attributes we assign to genders.  Women aren’t just “feminine”, they have some feminine and some masculine traits.  They can be athletic and domestic, compassionate and decisive, and the list goes on and on.  The same is true of men.  They don’t have to be physically strong brutes who negotiate like bulls and scorn the idea of washing up or cooking dinner.  I know men who can throw punches like it’s Fight Club and then cook a mean pasta primavera and help their significant other with the laundry.  (Straight men.)

Here is when the traditional side of me pipes up and says, “but men and women are fundamentally different!  Everyone knows this!”  To a point that is definitely true.  It seems impossible to argue that there isn’t something objectively masculine or feminine about the genders.  For the purposes of this particular discussion, though, I’m throwing that out of the window.  Why?  Because God was both masculine and feminine, and so was Jesus.  Jesus, the man who athletically overturned the tables of the moneylenders and also called himself a mother hen.  If God himself births creation like a mother and rears it like a father, who are we to say that just because He created us as Male and Female that somehow masculine and feminine were isolated and divided evenly between those genders?  Personally, I think that after the fall everything got a bit muddled up.  I think that masculine does need feminine to soften it, otherwise it becomes brutish.  I think that feminine does need masculine to strengthen it, otherwise it becomes too indulgent.  I think that we, as genders, need each other to create equilibrium in the world.  But I don’t believe that we are defined, individually, by our physical gender.  I think that we define ourselves by how we live it out.

In any case, when I take my daughter to see Brave I’m not going to tell her that Merida makes her own choices because she’s a lesbian.  I’m going to tell her that Merida was brave because she wasn’t afraid to be herself.  Then, I will tell my daughter to be brave and be herself.  I will buy her popcorn, and that will be the end of it.

Things don’t have to be any more complicated than that, for now.

Know who you really are.

I have a theory.  You’ll never find happiness and fulfillment if you don’t know who you really are.  You may be married to an amazing person, raising good kids, working a decent job, able to have time to relax and pursue other interests…  but if you don’t really know yourself, you’ll always hunger.

Our physical bodies have this amazing capacity to know what they lack.  That’s why we have an appetite. You may suddenly crave fresh fruit, or fish, or a cheeseburger.  And you may think, “ah, I’m hungry” and eat potato chips or a handful of vegetables or a couple of chocolates from your snack drawer.  Yet, you will continue to crave, even when your tummy is full.  Why?  Because you don’t really understand what your body is hungry for.  It may be telling you “more vitamins!” or “more fibre!” or “more iron!” and you are filling it up with the wrong things.  So even when it has an excess of calories, it still has a lack of the things it needs to be healthy.

Our daily lives are the same.  Our soul aches, and from that ache comes greed and jealousy and depression, or exhaustion.  We think that the answer is to work harder, to have more, to divorce the spouse that doesn’t content us, to sink money into hobbies that waste time but don’t fulfill.  We search and we ache and we feed our days with all of these things, but still go to bed feeling like something is missing.

Why?

We don’t really know who we are.  Like with our appetite, we lack the ability to listen to our soul and give ourselves the right priorities.  If you want to paint a painting that reflects your spirit and you settle for “practical” scrapbooking, you could spend a fortune in money and time and still feel unfulfilled.  If you’re working at a firm because you chose a profession that offers you stability and all your heart wants is to stand on the stage saying “that this too too sullied flesh would melt” (while rocking awesome tights), you’re going to go home every day feeling like a failure no matter how successful your career is.  You may be married to an incredible person, with wonderful kids- but if every day you carry wounds you are ignoring and never healing, your relationships will suffer.  The answer isn’t finding someone else who abrades you less- it’s dealing with why the abrasions are there.  And here’s the secret: your hurts, while perhaps incurred in the process of dealing with one person or another, may not be their fault.

The problem may be a kink in your own spirit which you simply ignore.

So what is the answer to better interpersonal relationships?  It’s not know other people better, or to choose better people to know.  It’s to know yourself, to heal yourself, to feed yourself the right foods.  Once you are strong and happy, you’ll be able to have a great relationship with even the most abrasive of people.  Why?  Because when you come from a place of strength, your strong heart bleeds happiness into everything you touch- even other people.  A weak heart saps energy and turns everything into dust.

So know your heart.  Feed it what it needs to be fed.  Once that happens, you will be indomitable.

Husbands, Love your Wives

*drumroll*

Ephesians 5: 25-33 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.  In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.  After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body.   “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.  However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

Much ado has been made about wives “submitting” to their husbands.  I feel the need to point out that the passage about submission starts out with a blanket statement to all, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  It’s not just WIVES submitting to HUSBANDS, people, it’s ALL of us, submitting to EACH OTHER.  As I am called to submit to my husband I am also called to submit to my pastor, my fellow believers, my employers, everyone.  Obviously, given this case, we all seem to misunderstand what submission in this context means.  It does NOT mean subordination, it does NOT mean becoming an extension of someone else’s will.  By submission it means what in other contexts is called meekness, humility, cooperation.  It means allowing ourselves to become servants.

How many times did Christ command us to become servants?

Now, as for the husbands: they carry, by far, the greater weight in this passage.  Three verses are devoted to the women as opposed to eight reserved for the men.  Women are told (paraphrased) “submit to your husbands as before God, for Christ is the head of the church, so submit to your husband as you would to Christ in everything.”  This only truly makes sense when followed by the verses devoted to the husband.  And, in fact, Paul’s command to the women can only truly be followed in the letter of the law should the husband do as he was commanded.  I, as a woman, cannot submit to my husband AS I would to God unless he is acting on God’s behalf towards me.  For when I serve God I can obey him with pleasure in everything, knowing that his will for my life is for my own benefit and all of his commands are good, that his burden is light, and so on.  My husband, on the other hand, is fallible.  I do not know that all of his plans for my life are solely for my benefit, that obeying him would not be burdensome, and so on.  So the only way I can treat my husbands wishes with the same weight I would God’s is if I know that my husband is following God when making his wishes.

Thus, the commandment to wives hinges on the following to husbands: that they give themselves up for her, that they cleanse her with washing in the word, that they present her to themselves as pure and radiant, without wrinkle or blemish, holy and blameless. This command is not all, though!  They must love her AS THEY LOVE THEIR OWN BODIES.  I love my body a lot.  A do a lot to serve it throughout the day: I sleep, I eat, I exercise, I bathe.  If my body is sick I have to drop everything to care for it.  If my body is in pain I am keenly aware of it and do everything I can to assuage that pain until it is gone.  I am inseperable from my body, I cease to be if my body ceases to be, to fight my body’s will is incredibly difficult, as my body is my self.

And that, my friends, is how husbands are asked to view their wives.

Let’s talk about submission.  Submission being to put one’s self under the authority of, to serve the will of.  Now let’s compare that to the two becoming one, to the will of one being inseperable from the needs of another, to all pain being one and all needs being equal.  What is easier to do?  To say yes dear, or to feel the pain of the other as keenly as your own, to truly give up your life for the benefit of the other?

My father teaches that all things in a marriage hinge on the husband doing his job well.  If the husband is a good husband, the wife would have to be crazy not to want to serve him.  If he is doing all things while taking into account her needs as if they were his own, then by serving him the wife is actually serving herself.  Obviously in function this is nearly impossible, but in theory it works.

Which is why Paul points out that what he is REALLY talking about isn’t husbands and wives, it’s Christ and his followers.  He isn’t talking about marriage as a societal structure, but as a way to demonstrate the breadth and beauty of Christ’s love for his bride.

But the advice works.  Husbands, love your wives.  But more than that: both spouses need to become each others servants.  If he serves her needs as if they were his own and she serves him as if she were serving herself, both are made whole.  If either one becomes a lesser partner, someone goes needy.

It’s really that simple.