For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘mothering

Carry On, Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life by Glennon Doyle Melton, Scribner, 2013, 300 pp.

Carry On WarriorI have a significant number of friends, drawn from both clergy circles and mom circles, who are huge fans of Glennon Doyle Melton and her Momastery blog, almost like fangirls with their level of devotion and *squee*. Although I’ve been reading Momastery for a long time, I’m not in that camp. I’m not generally one to go fangirl anyway, and Momastery never tempted me. I admire Glennon Doyle Melton and her mission of connecting people together. Her blog regularly makes me draw in a sharp breath in recognition, or moves me to tears, or makes me feel heard and understood, or says something I want to say in a way that is much more clever. To be honest, even though I know Melton sees a much more inclusive vision, it sometimes felt too much like #whitepeopleproblems, a place for suburban, white and wealthy moms absorbed in their own struggles. Her writing annoys me sometimes, so much so that I can’t even make it through a blog post because of ALL THE CAPITAL LETTERS.

So, I didn’t reach for Carry On, Warrior right away. I knew it was important to read it, that I would find some great things inside, but I also felt like it might give me a headache.

I was wrong. Because it’s a book and not a blog, Carry On, Warrior is edited. That means it’s all the best, most wonderful stuff from Momastery, refined and honed into greater beauty. Glennon Doyle Melton is a good writer, and I suspect she had a good editor, because what emerges here is a stronger, clearer and more compelling voice for Melton, but one that remains uniquely hers. It’s still raw, not polished; authentic, not packaged. She’s become a much better writer, and what I found in Carry On, Warrior is a beautiful memoir of faith and hope. It’s only fitting that Melton, whose best appeal is her vulnerability about her own struggles, lives that story again as a writer. This isn’t a mess, it’s a beautiful, humorous collection of essays on life and love that reveals the holy in all our mess.

Melton tells stories from her brutiful life (beautiful + brutal, a term she coined), and invites us to see where God is present in them and in our brutiful lives. She covers her journey through addiction recovery and an eating disorder, the ups and downs of marriage and parenting, and finding faith and family. She has a straightforward way of explaining things using everyday metaphors that is deceptively simple. Her observations seem obvious, until you consider them for just a moment and realize their power. It’s a skill like Jesus, taking ordinary stuff and imbuing it with holy meaning. Also like Jesus, at every turn she offers glimpses of beauty and hope. I guess I probably sound like a fangirl now, against my will.

Below are some of my favorite examples, to get a sense of the power of Carry On, Warrior.

I like to compare God’s love to the sunrise. That sun shows up every morning, no matter how bad you’ve been the night before. It shines without judgment. It never withholds. It warms the sinners, the saints, the druggies, the cheerleaders–the saved and the heathens alike. You can hide from the sun, but it won’t take that personally. It’ll never, ever punish you for hiding. You can stay in the dark for years or decades, and when you finally step outside, it’ll be there. It was there the whole time, shining and shining. It’ll still be there, steady and bright as ever, just waiting for you to notice, to come out, to be warmed. … The sunrise was my daily invitation from God to come back to life. (19)

Here, in an open letter to her son, she tackles two of the most divisive questions among Christians today, the interpretation of scripture and what it means to be born again. Suddenly, all those divisions seem to fall away.

Much of the Bible is confusing, but the most important parts aren’t. Sometimes I wonder if folks keep arguing about the confusing parts so they don’t have to get started doing the simple parts. … If a certain scripture turns our judgment outward instead of inward, if it requires us to worry about changing others instead of ourselves, if it doesn’t help us become better lovers of God and life and others, if it distracts us from what we are supposed to be doing down here–finding God in everyone, feeding hungry people, comforting the sick and the sad, giving whatever we have to give, and laying down our lives for our friends–then we assume we don’t understand it yet, and we get back to what we do understand. Chase, what we do understand is that we are reborn.

The first time you’re born, you identify the people in the room as your family. The second time you’re born, you identify the whole world as your family. Christianity is not about joining a particular club; it’s about waking up to the fact that we’re all in the same club. (141)

She comes head-on at one of my favorite topics, the importance of church in Christian life.

Any faith worth a damn is a faith worked out over a lifetime of relationships with other people. Church is just a commitment to try to live a life of a certain quality–a life of love, of humility, of service–alongside others for whom you care and allow to care for you, even when that’s difficult. It’s a group of regular old humans trying to love each other and the world in superhuman ways. And so it’s a hard way of life, but to me, it’s the only way of life that makes any sense. When people ask me if faith, if church, is comforting to me, I say, “Sort of.” But mostly it’s challenging. (219)

With this book, Glennon Doyle Melton has moved well past the title of “mommy blogger,” and become a writer whose truth-telling cuts through the noise and gives voice to the presence of God in the midst of our everyday lives. I have flags in three pages already, with plans to use quotations for upcoming sermons. This is after already developing an entire sermon on her principles (We Can Do Hard Things) just a few weeks ago. I look forward to reading much more from her in the future.

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How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough, Hougton-Mifflin, 2012, 231 pp.

How-Children-Succeed-by-Paul-ToughI’ll admit it: I was drawn to this book as an anxious parent eager to do everything possible to equip my child for success. I read one of the preliminary excerpts in The New York Times, and I was fascinated. To continue the confessional spirit: I am someone who is highly risk-averse, and fears failure. I would like to teach my child how to take risks and fail boldly, then get up and try again. So far, his natural tendencies match the caution of both his parents. Instruction will be required, and I’m not sure I know how to give it.

Tough’s title might sell a lot of books to people like me (although I borrowed it from the library), but he is writing about children like mine, from relatively stable homes with educated, financially privileged parents. He takes an honest, close look at what we can do as a nation to change the lives of children from low income backgrounds and give them not only the opportunity, but the support they need to succeed. What he discovers is that intellect is not nearly as important as core character traits like grit, self-control, conscientiousness, and curiosity. If you have intellect but not those character strengths, and you come from a disadvantaged starting place, you will not likely overcome those disadvantages. If you do have those strengths, and some critical support along the way, you can overcome all kinds of poor schooling and stressful home situations, even improving intelligence scores, academic success and life opportunities.

Tough researches a wide array of programs aimed at overcoming the disadvantages of poverty, uncertain home life and poor schooling. He looks at research from neuroscientists, educators, educational reform experts, social scientists, and doctors. He diagnoses success and failure in programs to help children and adolescents, and concludes that we have failed as a nation to adequately address these problems. The challenges of poverty, the legacy of racism, poor schools, unstable family life and inadequate support combine to leave millions of young people further and further behind. We must improve all of these things, but if we could start with the most effective, it would be certain strengths of character that would help overcome the rest.

I found the list that Tough uses, drawn from researchers and employed by schools in the successful KIPP charter school program, to be particularly interesting and helpful. The character strengths deemed most important to success are: grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, curiosity (76). Notice that kindness, compassion, respect, honesty, helpfulness and other moral traits are not included. While those are important, they are not the things that lead to success in life. Most schools emphasize those character traits, and do not talk at all about the others. When you are trying to save children from a broken system, those are the strengths that make a difference–and the best news of all is that they can be taught.

Mothering God, my son starts kindergarten in the morning.  Please watch over my tiny child, my most precious one, as he climbs up those giant steps and into the mouth of the big yellow bus, its insides wriggling with elbows and knees and backpacks and lunchboxes. Give him calm in the chaos. Let him catch the excitement of his peers, but not their cruelty. May it be the grand adventure he dreams it to be.

Once that bus swallows him up, I can’t accompany him. I can’t hold his hand, and I can’t make sure that he gets where he’s supposed to go. So I’m imagining you, Mama God, standing beside him, a firm hand on his shoulder, your swishing skirts providing a path through the chaos and a safe place to hide if he gets too nervous. Take his hand when I can’t, and guide him where he needs to go.

Back when I was his whole world…

Since before he was born, I have been trying to protect him and keep him safe. I made sure his environment was safe with crib rails and car seats, baby gates and bike helmets. It was a small world, and I could keep it padded and protected. Now his world is getting bigger. I want his world to be as big as it can be, even if it means I can’t protect him from it. Remind me that this whole big world is still in your hands. Show him all its glorious expanse, but promise me he’ll always be in your care.

I want him to go to school to learn, and not just ABCs and 123s. I want him to learn how to be a friend. How to make good decisions. How to get along with all kinds of people, even mean ones. How to say “no.” How to fail and try again. How to lose and still have fun. How to deal with stress. How to overcome adversity. These lessons aren’t learned with books and worksheets. They can’t be learned in a “safe” environment. They hurt sometimes. Teach him hard-won lessons, because those are the ones that matter, but do not let his spirit be broken. Give him courage and resilience and companions for the journey.

Reassure me, O God, that my one precious child will never be lost in your care. Mother him for me when I cannot. Help me teach him to walk away from me. Hold me tight when I have to let him go. Amen.

Little boy in the big world.

Birthday Sunday


“Mom, what about Birthday Sunday? When they do all the January birthdays? It’s my turn. I’m a January birthday.”

Sunday morning was the first time (except for six weeks of maternity leave) I’ve ever been in the same town as my congregation and not been with them for worship. It’s also the first time B has ever been away from church, with the exception of attending the church of my childhood when we are home in Virginia. We were getting ready to visit a neighboring congregation, but he didn’t understand why we couldn’t go to our church, to see his friends and be a part of the family he loves. Truth be told, I was having a hard time with it myself.

Separating from my church, now that I am here in the same town, is harder than I anticipated. While I didn’t miss all the business, meetings, sermon writing, prep work, and early-morning scurry to get ready for worship, I desperately missed being there with them. I didn’t want to lead, I just wanted to come and sit in the pew and worship there. They are my home, my church, my Christian family. Going to a strange, new church is hard. You don’t know what to expect, if there will be a connection to God or others, if you will know any of the songs, if you’ll find the theology abhorrent or just feel terribly out of place.  Yet part of sabbatical means being away, and there was no way for me to visit with them without being their pastor—which means being drawn into the pastoral care needs, business decisions, administrative matters and everything else that is church work. So I knew why I needed to stay away, even though I miss them.

It’s harder to explain it to B. After all, Sunday mornings are not work for him. He knows the beauty of church as his family. He has friends his own age, and teenage and adult friends that supervise him while I am leading worship and making the rounds at coffee hour. He looks forward to the routine of a Sunday morning—the pre-worship playtime, shaking hands during the passing of the peace, coming up for the children’s time, and getting too many cupcakes during fellowship time. He knows the rhythms of the church, both the liturgical seasons and the all-important monthly celebration of Birthday Sunday.

I tried to make up for all he is missing with the promise that, for once, we actually get to sit together in church. I reminded him of how frustrated he gets on Sunday mornings, when I am too busy to talk to him or play with him. I promised that during this special sabbatical time, I would be with him during church, the whole time, no distractions. I thought this would be poor consolation, but he seemed pleased.

When we arrived as guests at this new church, B decided without hesitation that he did not want to visit the children’s program—he wanted to sit with me the whole time. As soon as the opening song began, my eyes filled with tears. I was overcome by the power of simply receiving the gift of worship alongside my son. It felt like an immersion, like diving into healing waters. Without worrying about what comes next, focusing on my sermon, noticing who was missing or who looked like they weren’t feeling well, I could just open myself to worship. When someone came and sat in front of us, we could move over so B could still see. When everyone else stood, I could stay seated to remain at B’s height. During the sermon, I took notes and listened for the Word of God, which spoke deeply to my heart. When B got bored, I could fish out a pen and paper from the bottom of my purse. When I was moved, I could cry and not worry about holding it together to say the benediction. These small luxuries felt like tiny miracles, each small marvel to behold.

This has been a deep gift already for sabbatical, and there are quite a few Sundays left. While I expect I will still feel a pang of longing for my own church family on Sunday mornings, I am so grateful for the gift of worship. B seemed to appreciate it too, as he snuggled into my lap during the sermon and showed me the drawings he had made in the bulletin.

Also, I promised him that he could join in the February Birthday Sunday celebration when we get back, and we would sing to him with the others. Church folk, I know you’ll understand and welcome him with open arms, because you’re our family.

Our family enjoyed a vacation to visit family in Florida a few weeks back, including one morning at the beach. J was building a master sandcastle, I was sticking my feet in the cold water, and B was playing in the sand and chasing seagulls. The beach was mostly empty. His fear of the water kept him far away from danger, so we let him wander freely as we all enjoyed the sun and sand and ocean spray. He generally stayed within a 10-15 yard radius. We kept an eye out, but trusted him to stay close. For over an hour, he ran and returned, up and down the beach. The tie-dyed blue and yellow bulls-eye on his shirt made him easy to spot, no matter what.

Then I looked up one time and decided he had strayed a little too far. I called out to him, but he couldn’t hear over the sound of the waves. I figured he was running over to investigate some fishermen just down the beach, and he would turn around after he checked them out. When he kept running past their poles and buckets, I started out after him, calling his name again and again. He just kept running down the beach. I started to get angry, quickened my pace to try to close the distance, and waited for him to turn around. He just kept running. He was getting faster, and farther away. I started to run—and I don’t run—and called out to him louder and louder. I started to contemplate what kind of consequences to apply to a child who runs away. He just kept running and running, and I couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t getting tired, stopping, looking back. I ran and ran, but I couldn’t catch up to him.

Finally, an older gentleman noticed a young child running alone and looked back for a parent. I gestured that I was trying to catch him, and the man jogged to catch up to B and stop him. He touched him on the shoulder, bent down and turned him around to face me, pointing me out running along behind him. B took off running again, but this time toward me.

It was only then that I realized what had happened. He had gotten confused and thought he was lost. He panicked, and just started running faster and faster. By the time I caught up to him he was red-faced, crying and shaking with fear. All the harsh words I’d been planning vanished, and I simply embraced him in the sand.

B learned an important lesson that day: if you are lost, sit down. Stay put. Wait to be found. Do not run faster and faster and faster—because you might just be running in the wrong direction. You might just be making it harder for your mother to find you. We had talked about this a few times, but he said he just forgot when he got frightened.

What has been on my mind ever since, though, was the difference in our experiences that day. B was panicked, probably afraid he’d lost his parents forever, that he’d never get home from this faraway place. I remember that fear as a child, the fear of being lost and separated and unable to find your way home. His heart must have been racing as fast as his little legs. I can’t recall another experience in his short lifetime that would have been so frightening or traumatic. Had he even paused to look back over his shoulder, he would have seen me and ceased to fear. But the more fear he felt, the harder he ran—and the farther away he got from me.

Same shirt, different day

While I was annoyed with him at first, I was never afraid. I was never lost, nor was he ever lost to me. I could see where he was the whole time, that electric t-shirt standing out against the pale sand. I knew he was safe. I knew he would not be harmed. I knew I would not stop running until I caught up with him. I knew the way back home. I had nothing to fear.

The whole experience makes me pause and reflect on our relationship with God. How often do we think we are lost, and so we panic and just start running? The more frightened we get, the harder we run. The less we recognize our surroundings, the faster we blow through them trying to recover familiar territory. Like B, we forget the rules when we get frightened. If you are lost, sit down. Stay put. Wait to be found. Do not run faster and faster and faster—because you might just be running in the wrong direction.

God knows where we are. We may feel lost, but we are never lost to God. Like any watchful mother, She knows exactly where we are and will not let us out of Her sight. When we stray too far, She is in active pursuit. Our reunion with the Beloved does not depend on our ability to find our way home again all by ourselves. All we have to do is stop the running, and She will find us. Sometimes, it takes intercession, direction from another soul who can see our fear, turn us around, and show us God is coming after us. No matter what, God will not stop chasing us until we are safe in Her arms again.

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore, we will not fear.
The Lord of Hosts is with us.
“Be still and know that I am God.”     —From Psalm 46

The two most discussed and posted parenting articles among my Facebook friends this week have been Amy Chua’s “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior”, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal,  and Mayim Bialik’s (aka “Blossom“) introduction to Attachment Parenting for the Today Show blog.

Amy Chua with her daughters. (Photo by Erin Patrice O'Brien, Wall Street Journal)

Chua’s article has unleashed a firestorm of angry and wounded responses, calling her whole approach to parenting abusive and psychologically damaging. She basically argues that the role of a parent is to push their child toward perfection, even if it means hounding, fighting, resisting the child’s own desires, even to extremes. In her understanding, this enables the child to achieve greatness. Labeling herself a “tiger mom,” she believes that the child’s ego is resilient and strong, and that parental aggressiveness builds the child’s confidence that they can do the impossible. Her article analyzes the differences between what she labels as “Chinese” and “Western” parenting, and argues why her hard-nosed style is better. (As a side note, I can’t help but wonder about the timing of this article, which coincides with the state visit by China’s President Hu and elaborate news coverage of economic ties and cultural dissonances between the U.S. and China.)

Mayim Bialik (Photo by Denise Herrick Borchert, The Today Show)

Mayim Bialik’s article talks more about the “what” than the “why,” but the case for attachment parenting is well known. Bialik and other attached parents argue the opposite of Chua: that the role of a parent is to be responsive to a child’s needs, to listen and nurture the whims and desires of the child, so that they might gain confidence in themselves in a supportive and nurturing environment. Bialik describes a constellation of parenting decisions usually labeled “attachment parenting,” such as extended nursing, co-sleeping, babywearing and gentle discipline. Following the lead of Dr. Sears, attachment parenting advocates believe that what children need most is unconditional love, emotional security and sensitive attention in order to develop confidence and security in their own identities.

Among my friends, Chua’s article has mostly received expressions of horror, outrage and scorn.  Bialik’s article has been lauded as a validation of “crunchy-granola” attachment parenting values from the mainstream media. (After all, it doesn’t get much more mainstream media than the Today Show.) In the interest of full disclosure, I also objected to many of the ideas in Chua’s article, and I support many of the ideas in Bialik’s article. Although we did not/do not follow all of the attachment parenting practices, I have a strong leaning in that direction.

What strikes me as far more interesting, however, are the striking similarities between the two articles. While the daily parenting styles seem completely opposed to one another, there are some fundamental identity issues and assumptions that they both share. First, both mothers are smart, well-educated and financially secure. Chua is a professor at Yale Law School, and Bialik has a Ph.D. in neuroscience and an ongoing acting career. Second, both mothers are passionately invested in the work of parenting. They are thoughtful and intentional about their relationships with their children. Third, they both clearly love their children and want what’s best for them, even if they have very different views of “what’s best.”

Most compelling, they share a fundamental assumption about raising children. Both approaches—the Tiger Mom and the Attached Parent—seem to believe that the child cannot thrive without constant parental attention.  Both perceive the child as a fragile creature, likely to collapse without constant intervention. The fears themselves are different: Tiger Moms fear laziness, disorganization, and lack of achievement; Attached Parents fear loss of self-esteem and a broken ego unable to form relationships. The remedies and interventions are also different: Tiger Moms believe in the power of constant nagging and force; Attached Parents believe in the power of constant reassurance and sensitivity. But, fundamentally, they both seem to work on the premise that children are fragile and incapable of growing into normal, healthy, successful adults (however you define that) without intense attention from their parents (whether direct focus or in the creation of a certain environment). I would also infer that they both share a huge weight of anxiety and responsibility over their children’s development, whether parent-led or child-led.

Observing the connection between the two articles made me realize something about my own style of parenting. Like both Chua and Bialik, I am smart, well-educated and financially secure (for the most part, although far below their income brackets). I am thoughtful and intentional in my parenting, even taking time to write about it here. I obviously love my son and want what’s best for him. I have experienced plenty of fear and anxiety over whether or not I am doing the right things as his mother. I have often felt guilty for not being more “attached,” more intense and attentive in my interactions with B. I have even occasionally felt guilty for not pushing him harder to try new things or attempt things that are difficult.

The difference is: I get over those feelings pretty quickly because I just don’t believe, like they seem to, that B is fundamentally fragile, and that the intensity of my attention (strict or sensitive) will make or break his security and success into adulthood. Part of the reason I was never very good at attached parenting is because I valued B’s independence (and my own) too much to offer him constant attention, even as an infant. Like Chua, I believe that children are strong and resilient and not easily crushed. However, like Bialik, I believe that listening responding to my child’s needs is essential to good parenting, and I could never ignore or belittle his own desires and expressed needs. We tend to strike somewhere in between–it’s what works for our family.

For B, even the sky's no limit. (Photo by revjmk)

Most importantly, I just believe that all B really needs is to know that he is loved, that we will provide for him as best as we are able, that there are clear boundaries for behavior and safety, and that we trust him with the rest. If we offer him those things, he will be alright. D.H. Lawrence once said there were three rules for raising children: “First rule: leave him alone. Second rule: leave him alone. Third rule: leave him alone.” While that’s obviously a bit extreme, I think there is some wisdom there, especially for over-anxious, over-educated, over-intentional parents like Bialik, Chua and me. I think, in the end, children need both less coddling and less prodding, less protection and less pushing than either hard core Tiger Moms or committed Attached Parents are ready to offer.

It makes me suspicious that those two styles of parenting and most others are more about our needs than about our children’s. Like our need to believe we can protect our children from all hurt and harm. Or our need to believe that our efforts can somehow create ideal children–whether that ideal is success, brilliance, happiness, creativity, freedom or anything else.  Or our need to control our lives, and by extension our children’s, to ward off fear and anxiety about the unknown. Or our need to heal the wounds of our own childhood. Or our need to prove our worth through the accomplishments of our children. Or any other variety of normal adult longings and anxieties.

But children are people too. From an early age, they show their own preferences and choices, their own fears and desires, and their own ways of being in the world. They will all grow up to make their own mistakes and carry their own wounds, including some from their parents, no matter what we do. We love them, listen to them, be there for them, try to do what we think is best for them, pray we are right about what is best for them, and trust they will be O.K. in the end. Amazingly, most of them are.

“But it’s O.K., right?”

B has started saying this all the time. Usually it follows something he does wrong, or something I warn him against doing. It can be anything from spilling his Goldfish crackers to playing too rough to forgetting to put his clothes in the laundry basket. He sometimes says it in response to a reprimand, but sometimes even when no reprimand has been issued or needed. He says it whether I have given a firm warning or a mild caution.

“But it’s O.K., right?”

His tone has a mixture of breeziness (like “no big deal”), and neediness (like “you’re not mad at me are you?”). It’s this blend that I find perplexing, troubling and annoying.

The breeziness is annoying. No, it’s not alright that you spilled, or that you were careless, or that you didn’t listen to me the first time, or that you did something I told you not to do. It is not a big deal, but that doesn’t mean it’s O.K. that you did it or that you can do it again.

The neediness is perplexing and troubling. What is he worried about? Have I given some indication that my love for him is contingent upon his good behavior?  B is an easy-going child that rarely provokes my temper, and I am not a yeller by nature. We use time-outs sparingly, because a cautionary word is usually sufficient. Does he think I might get angry at him for some minor infraction? Does he think I’ll stop loving him or caring for him because he’s still learning how to be a responsible member of the household? He’s three years old, and raised in a loving home. How could he be so fragile?

“But it’s O.K., right?”

I don’t know what is behind this strange new phrase. It’s probably a mix of all of the above, but I struggled mightily to find an appropriate response. Finally, one morning as we shared the job of cleaning up some spilled Cheerios, he said it again. I stopped and pulled him close to give him a deeper answer. “B,” I said, “it’s not O.K. to be careless and spill Cheerios everywhere. You have to pay attention. But you and me, we’re O.K. even when you do spill them. I’m not angry with you, and I’ll always love you, even when you spill things. We’ll just clean them up and try to be more careful next time.”

As I said these words, I realized that this is God’s message to us all the time. No, it’s not O.K. that you sinned again, and again, and again. Yes, it does matter, and you need to try harder, do better, be more loving, be more compassionate, follow Christ more fully. But you and me, we’re O.K. even when you do sin. I’m not angry with you, and I’ll always love you, even when you screw up the big things, not just some spilled Cheerios. I’ll forgive you, love you, help you clean up your mess and encourage you to be more careful next time.

“But it’s O.K., right?”

No, it isn’t. And yes, of course it is. If it’s true of my love for my child, how much more true is it of God’s love for us?


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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