Poop Disasters and other Perils of Parenthood

Once upon a time, all I wanted was to be a mom. From the time I was a little girl playing with dolls, through Jr. High when I started to babysit and High School when I gave up my “real job” to go back to babysitting (even through there was always, always at least one poop disaster every single time I sat for my favorite family), through college when I was a nanny for a family, I knew, more than anything I wanted to be a mother.

I had other dreams, too. First, I thought I’d be a teacher. Then, a ballerina, then, when I had a boyfriend who I was way too serious about, I thought I’d be a nurse (so I could study in town and be close to him). Then, I experienced my call to ministry while I was still in high school. So I wanted to be a mom and a minister and I wasn’t sure I could be both at the same time.

My mother was a stay at home mom. I walked home from school for lunch every day in elementary school. In Jr. High Mom was there when I got home, or she had come to school to pick me up to get me to my ballet or piano lessons. When she picked me up she always had a bag of raisins and peanuts for me to snack on to tide me over until dinner time. Mom was an assistant troop leader for my Girl Scout troop even though she really didn’t like working with kids. Mom was my room mother when I was in first and second grade. When I was in High School, she was my younger brother’s Cub-Scout den leader, and hated it, “Becky, please come straight home from school today to help me. The boys will be here. You know I need help, especially with Kevin.” Why was she the Den Mother? Because the den needed a leader and Mom was one of the only stay at home mothers around. And she believed my brother Tom and his friends should have the experience of being Cub Scouts.

Early in High School I brought in the mail and it included a letter to Mom from the State of Nebraska. It looked official and I was curious. Mom explained it was her application for renewal of her nursing license. Mom was an RN who quit working outside the home when they adopted my older brother. “Why do you keep your nursing license?” I asked. “You haven’t worked as a nurse for years.”  It was in the mid 1970’s. Mother told me, “Becky, every woman who has children has an obligation to be able to earn a living for her family. I keep my nursing license up-to-date so that were anything to happen to your father, I could support you.”

Daddy was a pediatrician. He knew a lot about what was good for children. Once, after I was ordained, after I was a mother to young children, sometime in the early 1990’s we were home for a visit. Daddy read something in the paper that troubled him and he said, “The problem is all the women working outside the home these days.” And, I asked him, “Dad, do you mean by saying that, that I shouldn’t be a minister?” Taken aback, Dad demurred. “Well, no. But you’re different.” And I was, sort of. My husband and I were. We were both ministers and when our boys were little we shared one position. It was a choice we made. We chose to live on less income, to have fewer things than many of our friends in order to be able to be more fully present with our boys.

Dad had seen too many kids whose parents were too busy to pay them the attention children require and deserve. He allowed that maybe the problem wasn’t women working, but couples who wanted it all and in a big hurry. When my brother and I came home as babies it was to a 900 square foot home. When my parents built their dream home, it was a 1200 square foot brick ranch which they owned for thirty years. My parents built a life they could afford to live on Dad’s income alone. A life Mother could have continued to afford had something happened to Dad and she needed to return to her profession.

When it was clear my husband wasn’t happy as a minister, and we had three young children and we couldn’t count on him being able to do his part to earn a living for us in ministry I went back to school to get my Doctoral degree. I needed to be the best equipped I could be to support our family when he went back to school to learn another profession. By then, the boys were in school and preschool and my husband and I shared a 1.5 position in a church.  To earn my degree I woke up at 4:00 am to do my school work before the boys woke up, and I went to bed when they did. I studied during my days off from the church while the boys were in school and when they were home, I was attentive to them. I didn’t want their childhood to be filled with me saying, “I’m sorry, I can’t right now, I have to study.”

Once, around that same time, a friend from home called to tell me of her new lover, and the new lover’s children, and her own teenaged children’s struggles with her divorce and her re-marriage and divorce from that husband and how happy she was now she’d met this new love and how happy her daughter had been that she and her mom were finally stable. And she told me her son was really messed up, and struggling, but she knew her daughter and he’d be happier knowing she was, at last, happy. And I wanted to ask her “can’t you just wait a couple years until your kids are grown? Can’t you give them a couple years of stability before you bring another person into their home and your life? Can’t you just provide for them what they need, and think a little less about what you need for now?” My friend’s relationship with the new lover faded quickly, and her kids went through yet another transition and loss. It seemed so unfair to them. They didn’t ask for all that drama in their lives.

Then my own marriage ended. Instead of going back to school to prepare for a career other than ministry, my husband’s mental health crumbled and eventually, our family’s whole well-being rested on my shoulders.

When I had a boyfriend for a time shortly after my divorce, my thoughts about my friend with the new lover came back to me. Didn’t my sons deserve a mother whose attention wasn’t diverted by new romances and relationships throughout their teens? I became more cautious. It was eight years after I was divorced before Mike and I met. We married a year later when my youngest was a senior in High School and the other boys were grown and gone from home. My kids suffered enough trauma going through their parent’s divorce. It seemed only right to let the rest of their growing up be a lot less eventful.

I’m thinking about all of this because I just heard about a young woman I know who wants more than anything to be a mom. She’s always wanted to be a mom. More than anything else she’s ever wanted to do with her life, she’s wanted to have children. She wants to be a stay-at-home mother, too. She thinks it’s important for children to have their mother’s attention when they’re young. I applaud all of those impulses, having felt each of them myself when I was her age.

She worries me though. She worries me because she isn’t prepared to support the children she hopes to have. Right now, she imagines the man she loves will support their family. But what happens if their love fails? What happens if, like it happened to a friend of mine when we both had little babies, her husband complains of a stomach ache one week and is dead from stomach cancer the next, leaving a two year old and a six week old to rely solely on their mother?

When my sons were younger men, I said to at least one of them, “Don’t be making any babies until you’re fully prepared to take care of them, because any grandbabies of mine are going to be spectacular, and they deserve to have two parents who love them and each other and are each fully capable of being good parents for them.”

That isn’t always what come to pass. The best isn’t always what we’re able to dish up in life, but is it too much to ask that we try? Is it too much to ask that people who choose to become parents be as ready as possible to take care of their children, and ready to give up some of their own desires and pleasures in order to give their children the time and attention they need to grow up whole and healthy? Is it too much to ask that people bringing other people into the world make some contingency plans, and recognize life doesn’t always unfold the way we hope it will?

Being a mother has been the very best part of my life. It’s been filled with poop disasters (little round balls of poop falling out of one toddler boy’s diaper and the crawler right behind him, picking them up…Ugh!), sweet kisses, loads of laughter, loads and loads of laundry, some degree of heartache, creative chaos, button popping pride, and now, deep satisfaction and joy observing the good, kind men my sons have become despite all the ups and downs of their childhood.

I missed the mark in many ways raising my sons. But, I thank God every day for my mother teaching me every parent needs to be ready to take care of his or her children. I thank God every day for my pediatrician father’s example of keeping the main thing the main thing in raising children. Pay attention. Be there. Be a parent. If you’re a dad, you’re the only dad your children have. If you’re a mom, you’re your child’s only mother.

I thank God every day for the whole village that helped my sons become the men they are today. And, I don’t for a moment regret the years I invested in getting them grown and launched into life.

To my young friend and everyone like her who wants more than anything to be a mother, a father, I hope one day your dreams come true. Only, please, be sure you’re as ready as you can be. Otherwise, you could be selling yourself short, and your children, too.

And that would be so sad.

Ben’s Box and November in Nebraska

It’s November 27th and it was 67 degrees when I went to the grocery store an hour ago. (I live in Nebraska). We’ve had high temperatures in the mid-sixties since Thanksgiving Day, four days ago. (I live in Nebraska). The weather has been beautiful. On Black Friday Mike and I took advantage of it and hung our (minimal) Christmas lights a whole week ahead of the beginning of Advent, because we live in Nebraska and who knew when we might have another day so nice for hanging lights?

Usually, hanging lights involves snot freezing as it drips from one’s nose when tipped upside down from the ladder. Usually, hanging the twinkling cheer involves fingers frozen stiff with cold and a face lacerated by leaves whipped up into mini-tornadoes while one stands defenseless atop a ladder. Not this year. I’m not complaining, except, it is a little weird. Shorts, flip-flops and Christmas tree displays go together in Florida maybe, but not here, except today. Today even that sight made sense in a very nonsensical way.

One of the errands I ran today was to mail a box to Benjamin, my youngest son. He lives in New York City and because he started a new job in October he has no vacation time and was not able to come home for Thanksgiving. For the same reason, he won’t be coming home for Christmas. The box I mailed holds a Christmas ornament for each year of his life so far. Every year since they were babies, I bought each of my sons a new ornament for our tree. My mother did the same for me and my brothers when we were little. When we left home, she sent the ornaments with us so we’d have a little bit of home on our Christmas trees even if we lived far away. I still have the little gingerbread house, and angel with orange fluffy hair and Raggedly Ann from the trees of my childhood.  This year Benjamin will have his jointed frog that he broke and secretly fixed with chewing gum and the Santa whose arms and legs move at the tug of a string, and a delicate carved wooden ornament in the shape of Nebraska tied with a red ribbon among twenty-some others.

Once I graduated from college  I spent most of my Christmases far away from home. My first husband and I were both pastors. We served churches in Kentucky, Illinois, Ohio and Michigan and since churches generally expect their pastor(s) to be present for Christmas Eve at least, getting home to Nebraska for the holidays wasn’t usually feasible. Once in a while my parents came to where we were for the holidays, but mostly we created traditions of our own with our boys and talked with my family by phone late in the day on Christmas.

That the day would come when my own children might not be home for the holidays is something I always anticipated. That  we would not always be in the same place, enjoying the same glittering tree was inherent in my buying ornaments for them to “take with them someday.” But, knowing the day would come is not the same as living that day. Dropping off that box today I felt my heart. It ripped a little bit inside my chest as I gave the woman Ben’s address.

This five day streak of near record breaking warmth in Nebraska in November just doesn’t seem right. Neither does sending Ben his box. I’m not complaining exactly, but it is a little weird.

 

At Last

When I climb into bed at night, I giggle. I’ve been giggling as I nestle under the sheets and onto my pillows for the past six and a half years and all indications are, the giggle isn’t going away. Mike noticed it first. “Do you realize you giggle when you crawl into bed next to me?” “Hmm! I guess I do” I agreed.

The giggle is pure delight. Mike is “at last this is flesh of my flesh” to me. Mike is home and my safest place. Mike is my other half. Seeing Mike makes me grin and I can’t help it. Between us, there’s a magnetic field of some sort—drawing us toward each other. We “met” on Match.com. The first time we met for coffee was two months, a whole lot of e-mails and phone calls later. One of my first thoughts when I sat across from him made me blush, Becky! I said, in my head with the inflection my mother might have used when slightly incredulous and to set me straight, what are you thinking? I was thinking, I’d like to run my fingers through his hair right there at his temples.

His eyes are gentle and kind and…they twinkle and the hair at his temples is a gorgeous gray, highlighting his smiling eyes.

We both lived a long time before we found each other.

Mike was married before. His marriage lasted twenty-two years and produced three great kids. He and his ex-wife eventually had different priorities and they were divorced. The failure of his marriage was painful. Mike’s a family man. In fact, he moved out of the family home into an apartment just a block away so he could continue to be a very present father for the two of his children still at home. Sad, angry, lonely he built a new life for himself. When we met he’d been divorced for three years, his marriage had been over except on paper and in living arrangements for several more than that.

I was married before. I was married for nineteen years and our marriage produced three great kids. My ex-husband struggled with mental health issues. For many years he blamed his depression and struggles on external stresses, circumstances and people. Then, I started to get more of the blame. I was sad and lonely and one of my wisest, dearest friends guessed it. She asked “are you happy?” I told her “no, I’m just figuring it out one day at a time. This is the ‘for worse’ of the ‘for better for worse’ parts of the vows.” She said she couldn’t do it. She said she was crazy about her husband and he was crazy about her. I said “all marriages take work”. She said, “and some simply don’t work.” I told her mine was working just fine (even though it wasn’t).

A few months later a neighbor down the street sat me down to tell me she was concerned about my kids. “I don’t think you know what’s happening when you’re away at the church.” I didn’t know. She described a conversation she overheard putting away laundry in the hall while my son and her son and another neighbor boy were hanging out in her son’s room. The anger that had been turned on me was being turned on my children, too.

The divorce was pretty hellish. I don’t know many people who make it through divorce unscathed, we sure didn’t. So, when all the dust settled, and I eventually had full-custody of the kids, I moved home to Nebraska to be near my aging parents and one of my brothers. They helped me and the boys heal, and my brother and I helped our parents navigate some cruel blows from aging.

For eight years I said I was wearing a hat with three bills. Above one it said, “Mom” above another it said, “Daughter” and above the third it said, “Minister.” I just spun the hat around my head depending on the moment. Nowhere on the hat was there room for anything that said, simply, “Becky.”

A bit of Becky time eventually came. My elder two graduated from high school, my youngest was a high school junior, my mother “graduated” too.  And that’s when Mike and I met.

I didn’t know what was missing in my life until I met Mike. I had no idea what marriage could really be even though I tried my darndest to make a good marriage the first go around. There are other stories to be told about divorcing and dealing with guilt and the fact that all of us “miss the mark” all of us fall short in different ways at different times in life. We can wrestle later with thoughts about divorce and sin and forgiveness and the Bible and making sense out of what ancient, yet still living documents teach us about God’s will.

But, I can say this for sure. Mike is a gift to me from God. Of that I have absolutely no doubt.

Mike and I are wholly married to each other in the holy way God imagined and dreamed for all God’s children. Genesis says God looked on God’s very good creation and realized something not yet perfected, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” said God. And God fashioned another human just perfect for the first. Flesh of each other’s flesh, bone of each other’s bone.

All of this story brings me closer to the point I want to make.

Mike and I have six young adult children. What I want desperately for each of them is that they find someone fashioned just right for them to journey with through life. I want each of them to dance with delight because they are so well loved and to find the embrace of one with whom they know they are “home.” One who, at last, is flesh of their flesh. I want them to shiver with the pleasures of intimacy and break into grins when their special other turns the corner. I want them to have that someone they trust and can count on when cancer strikes, when stress is high. I want them to giggle when they climb into bed next to each other even when they are growing old.

I want that for each of our six children and for you and for your children and our neighbors and for our neighbor’s children. And here’s the kicker–one of our kids is gay and that doesn’t change one bit my hopes and prayers and dreams–they are the same for all six of our kids. I want them to know, if they want to know, I want them to really know love. I want them not to have to live life alone. And not to have to pretend to be who they aren’t because there isn’t anything more lonely than that. I don’t care if the one my kid loves is he, she or they. I want them to find the one for whom they say, “at last.”

Once upon a time and even now, there are those so caught up in religious rules and regulations they would deny the holiness of the love Mike and I share because we were both married before. And right now, this very week when there’s so much hurt and so much heart ache and sorrow out there and each of us needs another to shore us up and help us find home, this very week there are religious zealots who have written a heinous and ugly declaration denying the holiness of love to those who are LGBTQ+.

To them I say, Stop it already! God’s love is bigger than your limited imaginations.

And to God I say, Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for second chances. Thank you for the gift of my Mike. Thank you that as soon as I finish writing and click “publish” I will go upstairs and climb into bed and giggle as I nestle under the sheets and onto my pillows and next to my already sleeping sweet husband.

Thank you, God. Thank you. Thank you.

I Haven’t been bored

Daniel, my middle son, was about eighteen months old when I walked into our kitchen and found him perched on top of the refrigerator. When he was six, I walked into the dining room and found him just hanging out at the top of the open door frame. He’d shimmied up with his bare feet and was perched there like some blonde-headed birdie. When he was fifteen, I opened the door from the kitchen into our garage to take out the recycling and was surprised to find the garage door up and one of Dan’s friends standing facing me in the driveway with his video camera aimed slightly up.

I dropped the recycling in the bin and nonchalantly sauntered toward Dan’s buddy. We nodded at each other and slowly I turned to see what he was filming. Perched on the edge of the garage roof was Daniel in his bright yellow bike helmet wearing knee pads on his bare legs, poised…with his pogo stick ready to jump.

“Hi Mom.”

“Whatcha doin’, Daniel?”

“This is going to be epic! It will make a really great video for YouTube.”

“Wrong. Dan. It’s not happening.”

“But, Mom!”

“Nope. You’re going to take your pogo stick and drop it onto the front lawn over there and climb down the ladder and put the ladder away.”

“Come on, Mom. I’ve got my helmet.”

“No Dan. You have my permission to jump off anything you want on your pogo stick when you’re a full grown man, paying your own medical insurance and your own homeowner’s insurance, but right now everything’s on my ticket and I get to say, ‘no way’.”

I’m waiting up for full-grown adult Daniel tonight. He lives in Pittsburgh, PA but has work to do in the Midwest this week. Frozen, ready to bake cookies (a softball team fundraiser for one of the church youth group kids) are in the oven. The guest beds are made. Sandwiches are ready to be thrown together if he and his crew of two traveling with him are hungry when they arrive. The crew are professional stunt pogo-stickers and Daniel is in management for the X-Pogo Corporation. It’s crazy, right? Little did I know when I made Dan get down from my garage roof that day that a little over a decade later he would be earning his living off of kids doing tricks on pogo sticks.

I briefly was engaged to be married when I was still in college. I was way too young to be getting married, and he was not the right man and it didn’t take too long for me to come to my senses (that time) but, I remember telling my Dad, “Dad I can already see exactly what my life is going to be like when I marry him. He’ll finish school, I’ll finish school. He’ll work. We’ll have kids. It’s going to be boring.” Daddy said simply, “Oh, believe me Becky, once you have kids your life will never be boring.”

My dad was right. One of the very best parts of my life is being a mom. I loved the craziness of having three little boys three and under. I was glad my years as a soccer mom were short, children’s musical theater mom years were splendid, Children’s Opera Chorus mom years were sublime, punk-rock mama years coincided with my becoming a single mom. Those years were tough but tolerable with good ear plugs. I wasn’t much use as a Marching Band mom, but the boys did fine. I managed not to be too much of a helicopter mom as the boys tested their wings. And now, they’re scattered, New York City, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh. Mike’s kids, too, are grown and mostly gone and on their own.

I probably should have let Dan jump off the roof that day. He’s landed on his feet everywhere life’s taken him so far. For tonight, though, I have absolutely no regrets. I’m simply glad life’s bringing him home to hang around for a few days. Being Dan’s mom has not once been boring and for that and for him I will always be thankful.

Unglued

The East High School gym was filled with Samsonite card tables from various eras dug out of basements and garages and covered with white paper, and high school seniors and their parents drinking orange juice from Dixie Cups and pale lukewarm coffee in Styrofoam and eating sweet rolls. At 7:30 in the morning, the din of the senior awards breakfast was deafening. My middle son Daniel was among the honorees. The two of us shared a rickety table with Dan’s classmate Michael and his dad, Jack. People, movement, sound, light, energy was all around me.

I was inside my own bubble looking out. When Jack asked, “So, how are you, Becky? Things good at the church?” it took me a moment to process the thought that I should respond. What I said was, “My mother died last night.” My words fell like a cinder block. The four of us were startled by them. It wasn’t clear our little table could support their sudden weight.

How odd it was to me that the world was going on so normally, and that I and Daniel and the rest of our family would be going about such normal-life things. I’d never before lived a day without my mother being alive. I’d lived most of my adult life hundreds of miles away from Mom, and we weren’t the kind of mother and daughter who talked to each other on the phone all the time. But always, always, my whole life she’d been there. And now, not suddenly, because her death had been a long time coming, and not surprisingly, because we had been keeping vigil and caring for her as she labored into eternal life for weeks by that time, now she was simply, gone. It was an odd, disorienting feeling.

The memory of that morning, of my feelings nine years ago returned earlier this week and linger here. Out on the deck this ridiculously pleasant Saturday morning in mid-August in Nebraska, it is so beautiful I thought, “Even my Colorado cousins can’t beat this perfection.” But, just under the surface of that thought I am disoriented. Despite all the immediate surrounding evidence to the contrary, all is not well. The perfect breeze, the ideal temperature, the green, green trees and blue, blue sky belie the heavy truth.  Our nation is in trouble. Our churches are in trouble. Our neighbors are in trouble.

Vulnerable people all around the world have been in trouble always, but, this week, every week this past year, more and more of those whom I know and love who had been less vulnerable than the most vulnerable are feeling more and more threatened, more and more afraid. Immigrant friends, brown friends, gay friends, Muslim friends, and now Jewish friends—can it really be that in 2017 in the U.S.A. on Saturday morning a week ago a congregation at worship was menaced by Neo-Nazis wielding automatic weapons?

Out of the blue the other night a friend from far away texted me, “Are you concerned for your safety?” His reason for asking was different than my reason for replying a hesitant, simple, “Yes.”

I almost flunked the Rorschach ink-blot test when I took the battery of psychological tests required by the church before sending missionaries overseas back in my twenties. There was some image in which almost any sentient human being sees a gun, but Pollyanna me, I saw something completely innocuous instead. A night in my forties spent curled up in the fetal position bracing for the possibility I could be shot cured me of any lingering naiveté about how vulnerable all of us truly are to each other. One hurting, unglued human can wreak havoc.

I know that now. And now we see the evidence there are myriads of hurting humans among us and some of them are coming unglued.  It hasn’t happened suddenly and it shouldn’t be a surprise.

We have to process this thought; it’s time for each of us to respond. It’s time to speak up for those who are threatened, even if that means we may be threatened, too. It’s time to pray and to bravely unleash the power of love. Maybe there’s still time to make whole that which and those who are coming unglued around us.