For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘mothering

This morning started out rough. B woke up early, then melted down from tiredness, then we got stuck in 45 minutes of traffic on the ride to school. To fill time in traffic, I introduced B to new music: Johnny Cash’s My Mother’s Hymn Book.

B loves music, and we have been intentional about teaching him our favorites. For J, that means The Beatles. For me, that means the songs of the church. The music of the church is my deepest connection to God. When I need strength or hope or intimacy with God, I start to sing. My great-grandmother taught me to love the old hymns like “Whispering Hope” and “In the Garden.” My children’s choir directors filled me with “Apple Red Happiness” and “Do Lord.” During youth group, church camp and retreat years, I learned “Sanctuary” and “Pass It On” and “It’s Amazing.” In college, we sang social justice with “City of God,” and “Lift Ev’ry Voice” and “We Shall Overcome.” In every church I’ve served, I have learned new songs as I learned more about God, and the songs hold that faith understanding for me.

Increasing my repertoire of songs increases my repertoire of faith. They are a reservoir of strength, courage, insight, hope and grace. These songs of my heart have shaped my understanding of God, and they are my testimony to God’s love. I want to pass the songs on to B as they were passed on to me, so that he too can have such a supply of faith-filled words and melodies to draw on when he needs them.

And so this challenging morning I removed The Beatles from the CD player and stuck in My Mother’s Hymn Book. With a touch of irony as we sat in traffic, the song that swept us away today was “I Shall Not Be Moved.” This is one of my heart’s songs, and it often comes to me when I am facing difficulty or conflict. I sing it as a mantra of encouragement and strength when I feel weak or afraid.

This morning we played it over and over. Johnny Cash, B and I sang our hearts out. For the first time, B continued to belt out the melody line when I switched to harmony, so we became a trio of young and old, unison and harmony, wisdom and innocence. I went from grousing to laughing, and then to crying with joy at the crazy beauty of this one moment. When we finally got to preschool, 20 minutes late, we stayed in the car together to sing it one more time. I did not want the moment to end.

B will not likely remember this moment. Perhaps, though, with enough repetition, he will learn this song by heart. Someday, when he needs it most, this song might come into his heart and bring him faith, encouragement, strength, grace, the love of God and of his mother.

The drive to preschool has become definition time. If B has heard new words he does not understand, he often asks about them during the quiet drive. I enjoy his inquiring mind, and the challenge of explaining something in terms he will understand.

Last week, though, it got complicated.

Mommy, what does “kill” mean?

As I paused to figure this one out, he went on to explain that some of the older boys (he is 3, but his class has children up to kindergarten age) pretend to be superheroes and bad guys, and they “kill” him. B said, “When Z kills me, I just say ‘puweee,’ and when N dies me, I say ‘pchoooo.’ That’s what you do when they kill you.”

I chuckled to myself at his nonsense comeback, and felt grateful that he did not yet understand what game they were playing. His question had afforded me the opportunity to give some explanation and interpretation, rather than letting him get all his information from his schoolmates. B has not had any serious exposure to death, so it was difficult to be honest and truthful in answering his question with no context at all. Even more, his simple quest for a definition raised a whole host of theological and moral issues for me.

When I explain death, do I just explain what it means, or do I offer theological perspective and insight? To be honest, I’m not even sure what theological perspective I would offer. I am confident in my faith that this world and all that is in it is not the end, that the God of Jesus Christ is a God of resurrection and new life, able to overcome even death. I do not claim to know what that means—whether heaven and hell exist, what the afterlife looks or feels like, whether our individual souls continue to exist in some form. I tend to believe that we are reunited with God and with the souls of those we have lost, but in my mind that bears absolutely no resemblance to a family reunion filled with hugs and catching up on lost time. This is barely comprehensible to me, and I can’t imagine explaining it to a three-year-old.

Add to that the questions arising from violent play. We have carefully sheltered B from violent images and realities so far in his life, but that cannot and should not last forever. The world is a violent place, and being a peaceful presence in the world requires confronting and understanding that violence. As he matures, he will come to know that reality, and we will not try to hide it from him. His question indicates, however, that he is not yet capable of comprehending anything beyond the feeling of fear that violent images might provoke.

I also understand that war play is a normal and developmentally appropriate part of children’s lives (great article on that subject here), and I do not have any need to forbid those kinds of games from his life. There is little bad and a lot of good that can come from games of cops and robbers, or superheros and villains, or my childhood favorite, Jedi Knights and Storm Troopers. I wasn’t disturbed or angered to hear that friends at school are playing these games. Still, I think it’s important to let him know that violence is dangerous and wrong, and there are better ways of solving problems.

All of those questions raced through my mind, but meanwhile I needed an answer, quickly. How I wish I could just offer a simple definition this time!

In the end, I decided to abandon theology, keep a matter-of-fact tone, and throw in a small dose of moralism. I told him something like this:

Dying means that someone is gone forever, that they are not alive anymore and we can’t see them or talk to them. Like the dinosaurs—they are all dead. When you kill someone, you make them die. Sometimes you can play pretend about killing and dying. That’s okay if you’re playing superheroes or cowboys and there are bad guys. That’s just a game. But in real life, killing is very bad, because it makes someone gone forever, and their family would be sad about that.

I’m not sure I exactly believe everything I told him, and there are things that I believe that I didn’t tell him. That answer just seemed logical and faithful. He seemed satisfied without being frightened. All the other questions and possibilities can remain unanswered for now.

B just got invited to his first birthday party. One of the girls in his preschool class is having a princess party next week, and he got an invitation. He is very excited!

Since he has never been to a birthday party before, we told him we should probably bring a birthday present for his friend, then asked him what he thought we should get for her.

“My orange car,” he responded. “I can give her my orange car, because I think she would like that.”

Suppressing a giggle, my first thought was to correct him—to tell him no, his friend did not want one of his old toys, she wanted something new. Thankfully, I paused. In that moment’s pause, I realized that he had it right and I had it wrong. Gift-giving should not be all about shopping, it should be about generosity. His instinct was to give his friend something he loved to play with, because he thought she would enjoy it too. Even if that meant he would no longer be able to play with it himself.

Isn’t that the way gift-giving should be? I am long weary of participating in the consumerist model of gift-giving, where showing someone love and affection means shopping for them, where the measure of one’s concern is found in the price tag on the gift or the fanciness of the wrappings.

We plan to encourage B in his desire to share and be generous. We will also go to the store and pick out a new toy for his friend, but we will carefully avoid any indication that his first choice for a gift might not be good enough. Whatever we bring to the party will be topped off with that orange car, wrapped up separately and placed on top, with a note explaining that it is a gift from the heart of one child to another, in the spirit of sharing.

It’s exactly the kind of gift I always want to receive. How about you?

I am not a poet, and never have been. I am just beginning to conceive of myself as a writer. I can communicate a thought or concept with clarity, and occasionally concoct a unique turn of phrase. That’s about it.

Today, however, I wish I was a poet, because B has given me an image that a poet could put to good use.

He has already developed his parents’ love of words, and his vocabulary is especially broad for a child his age—but sometimes his desire to use a new word exceeds his understanding of it. It leads to some amusing malapropisms, but also some delightful imagery and new perspectives on the world.

This morning, he told me he “nibbled out of bed.”

I asked him what he meant by “nibbling out of bed,” and he tried to demonstrate with a kind of creeping, crawling movement across the floor. When I gently tried to explain that nibbling was a word that usually describes a way of eating rather than a way of moving, he remained insistent that he nibbled out of bed this morning.

So maybe he just intended to be poetic. I let the image unfurl a bit: to nibble out of bed, to let one’s toes taste small bites of cold air from beneath the blankets, to peck at the opening of the day, rather than bite into it whole and emerge from the night in one gulp…

But I’m not a poet. Perhaps B will be someday, and I’ll save these words to give back to him to explore again. Or set them loose in the world now, for another poet to take up and carry around.

It’s amazing what a kid learns in church. Today, in addition to learning about Palm Sunday, waving palms and shouting “Hosanna!” , even singing along with the refrain to “All Glory, Laud and Honor,” B informed me that he learned that lemonade comes in two colors: pink and yellow. Usually, we have yellow, but today we had pink, and he decided pink is much better.

In every conversation about what we did on Palm Sunday, the pink lemonade featured as prominently as the palms.

B used a pacifier from the time he was about three weeks old until about three weeks ago. From the first time we gave it to him (choosing to ignore the threatening warnings about the ill effects on breastfeeding) until we negotiated to remove it from his life (long past the age deemed appropriate by the experts), we were always aware that the pacifier was as much for us as it was for him, if not more so.

B’s pacifier enabled us to get some much needed sleep in those first few months of his life, when he would only sleep with a breast or a finger in his mouth. Before we conceded to the pacifier, we had both spent back-twisting hours leaning over the side of the crib with a pinkie finger awkwardly angled between his gums while he sucked at it sleepily. Removing the pinkie-paci shot B into dramatic alertness, causing us to insert the pinkie again. The pacifier was just what we needed.

As he grew from a newborn to a plumb and happy baby, the pacifier continued to provide much needed sleep. Leaving him at daycare every day, I felt like it might keep him from crying when he couldn’t be held all the time. He was a nightmare at naptime, all the way into toddlerhood. The pacifier helped.

We weaned him off it gradually. Shortly after his first birthday, we limited it to sleep times and car times. Then it whittled down to just sleep times. Then it was just nighttime. We have known for awhile (ok, six or seven months) that we could probably let it go. But we thought it just made life so much easier. For us and for him. The big danger that the experts talk about is that the pacifier can inhibit verbal development. Believe me, this is not a factor with B. He talks constantly. So we just let it go, and go, and go. It just didn’t seem like a big deal, and we didn’t want to lose a week’s sleep when he woke up fussing for it in the night.

Until about a month ago, when we got down to the last one. He kept losing that one in the night, and it fell down behind the bed. The only way to retrieve it was by turning on the light, getting B and all his stuffed friends (and there are many) up and out of the bed, peeling back the mattress, fishing it out and washing it off in the bathroom. Every once in awhile, this was feasible. But then it started happening several times a night. If we were losing sleep anyway fetching the darn thing from under the bed, we might as well lose sleep getting rid of it. It was no longer convenient for anyone.

We gave him a couple of days warning, and visited the toy department at Target to advise him that he could choose a new toy if he went a whole week without his pacifier. B was amenable to this agreement, and pre-chose a box of Hot Wheels as his prize. (We encouraged him to look for something else, since he already has dozens of Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars, but he was rigid in his opinion. We said he could have whatever he wanted—if a $5.00 box of race cars is what he wanted, so be it.)

We put him to bed that first night, bracing ourselves for a night filled with panicked sleep interruptions, extra songs, time in the rocking chair and the likely result of having him in our bed for a week. I was bracing myself to say goodbye to this last vestige of his babyhood.

And then nothing happened. Nothing. He slept soundly through until the next morning. B had been waking up once or twice in the night searching for his pacifier and crying out for help. We took it away completely, and he’s been sleeping peacefully all night long ever since. We returned to Target, bought the exact same box of $5.00 Hot Wheels he chose the week before, and he’s been happy as can be.

Apparently, the crutch we had been using to make life easier had actually been making life more complicated. The change we had long dreaded and postponed turned out to bring a greater rest and relief than the old way of doing things. The pacifier no longer pacified—it disrupted. We were just too fearful of change to let it go.

You can see where this is going, right?

How often do we hold on to a pacifier that has long outlived its usefulness, just because we fear change? How many people and churches and communities cling to crutches they think make life more convenient, when in reality the work of maintaining the crutch is far more difficult than living without it? Ever since B gave up his paci, I feel like I’ve been digging under the mattress of my life, trying to identify those pacifiers that are long overdue to head to the garbage. Yet still I keep washing them off one more time. Why can’t I trust that I’ll be happier with something new? Maybe because changes in adulthood are not as simple as a $5.00 box of Hot Wheels.

Earlier this week, we found another of B’s old pacifiers hiding in a dusty corner under the bed. He picked it up and said, “hey, look at this yucky old paci! What’s that doing here?” and without hesitation walked to the trash can and threw it away. I think if I let go, I’d quickly see the old pacifiers the same way. I just have to risk that first restless night.

In the last two days, B has started to use the phrase, “talk ’bout stuff.” Yesterday morning, he awoke and climbed into my bed so we could “talk ’bout stuff.” Then he told me a bunch of random stories about preschool and about our cats. Last night, when I was trying to put him to sleep, he wouldn’t let me pray or sing lullabies because he wanted to “talk ’bout stuff.” More random stories and observations about preschool and cats followed. I wanted to be strict and firm and urge him to go to bed in timely way, but I was powerless in the face of his irresistible cuteness.  This morning, it was more of the same. He wanted to stay in the car instead of going to preschool so that we could keep “talking ’bout stuff.”

I couldn’t say no. The day will come, far too soon, when “talking ’bout stuff” with his mother will be the last thing he wants to do. How long can I enjoy this privilege? Three more years? Five? Ten? Every time we “talk ’bout stuff,” I feel both the joyous delight of the conversation and the poignant pang of its fleeting nature.

Today, I took B with me to visit two church members at a  local (Catholic) nursing home. As we were leaving, he pointed out the window.

B: Hey! God is here! They have God here!

Me: What do you mean? Where do you see God?

B: Right there! Look! It’s God!

Me: You mean that statue?

B: Yes! That’s a statue of God.

This is what we saw from the window.

Here is the progression of my thoughts and feelings at that moment:

  • Fascination, to see what my little guy imagined God to be.
  • Delight, at his proclamation, “God is here! They have God here!”.
  • Sadness, to realize that already, in spite of my best efforts to offer contrary images, he already pictures God in classic renaissance human imagery.
  • Intrigue, to query him about exactly why he thought that was God.
  • Amusement, to get a closer look at the statue and realize that it was quite effeminate, like a fairy with angel wings.
  • More amusement, when I realized I hadn’t completely failed, because my three-year-old saw a statue of a girl with wings and daisies in her hair and called it God.

Here is a closer view, where you can really see the effeminate, fairy-with-angel-wings characteristics. Especially the daisies in the hair.

In the end, I decided to simply offer my opinion.

Me: I think that looks more like an angel. Angels have wings like that. You know, we don’t really know what God looks like. God is pretty complicated that way. Nobody really knows what God looks like.

B: Yeah. You’re right, actually. (Actually being one of his favorite words.) Actually, that is an angel. Can I run now? Will you race with me?

And we’re back to earth again. Except that as I watch him run gleefully, blissfully down the sidewalk, waving back at outstretched hands from nursing home windows, I think maybe I do know a little something about what God looks like.

Over the last two nights, I have read The Velveteen Rabbit to B for the first time. Much to my surprise, he loved it. He remembered where the story had left off the first night, and asked me to finish it.

After the reading, as he was climbing into bed, I was tucking him into bed with his special friend Doggy.

Me: Do you think Doggy is Real, like the Velveteen Rabbit?

B: No, he’s just a toy.

Me: The Velveteen Rabbit was a toy too, but he became Real because the boy loved him so much. You love Doggy, so do you think he could become Real?

B: (adamantly) No, he’s a toy. He’s not real. He’s a nice friend, but he’s going to stay a toy.

B has a great imagination, but very clear boundaries between real and pretend. A budding atheist, perhaps? He takes after his father that way.

Because sometimes it’s too funny to keep to yourself, even if it’s TMI.

B. has a wonderful creative eye. He sees familiar shapes in everything–animals in the clouds, boats in a half-eaten cracker, faces in a tree stump, and on and on. Apparently, he really sees those shapes in everything.

Yesterday: “Mom! Come quick! My poop looks like an alligator! See! It even has eyes! And a tail!”

So there we stood, peering closely into the toilet, holding our noses, admiring his creation. Which, I must confess, did bear a resemblance to an alligator. Complete with eyes and a tail.

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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  • Graham: Thank you for writing about Susan Howatch. I like it that she is described as a mesmerising story-teller on front of book, and I do agree. I had long
  • revjmk: Tammy, I'm not sure the "he" you are referring to here (Willimon, Hauerwas or me--who goes by the pronoun "she"). I'm also not sure why you think th
  • Tammy Sanders: Has no one noticed he has the 10 commandments wrong. 1. You shall have no other Gods before me. 2. You shall make no images. 3. Don’t take th



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