Scenery and single men

Dear Single Men,

It’s been a while since I’ve directed any comments your way, so lest you get too comfortable I thought I’d jot a note to light a fire under your collective rumps.

I may have reminded you before that most single women are not single by choice. (Is this ringing a bell? Okay, good.) You wisely pointed out that this is also true of most single men. Well said. Having gotten this far, I would like to add another piece to our logic: it’s time for you to stop ignoring the women over thirty.

I don’t plan to crack open the whole “Is it God’s will for me to be single?” bit, partly because I can’t decide for you and you certainly can’t decide for her; but mostly because the question itself goes against my understanding of God’s will as we know it. However I am certain of this fact: there are quite a number of magnificent adult women out there who would be better off with good men in their lives.

It’s startling to think about, really, because the women who do singlehood best make it look so effortless. They are engaged in fulfilling work, they are surrounded by relationships, they are maturing graciously, and they laugh often and delightfully. God be praised. But don’t be deceived. There may be a Christian woman or two in the world for whom singlehood is effortless, but I have not met her yet. Behind every gracious action and every appearance at yet another event alone lies a large dose of will power and heartache.

She has become a stronger person because of her life alone; I don’t deny it. And as a result, she is the kind of gem you will come across only once in a lifetime. She is serene. She is faithful. She is well-versed, well-traveled, well-rounded. She is truly beautiful.

And you almost don’t notice her.

She fits easily into the scenery of your local church, or mission, or school. You hang with the slim and ditzy twenty-year-old chicks and to you, she is just an Aunt Jane—the pleasant, wise, and completely safe person you so deeply admire. Platonically, of course.

Would you stop divorcing esteem from romance, and get Aunt Jane out of your head? You are not making this easy. She is a woman, and anything but immune to manly attention. She notices the way your eyes twinkle, the things you laugh at with her, the way you talk to a child. She knows that to you she is just a part of the scenery, but she dreams of a knight who notices.

Some of you have asked girl after girl, only to be met by a string of refusals, and I am sorry.

Ask a woman next time.

She may turn you down as well—though she longs for love she is not fool enough to accept anything with a beard—but her sympathies will be on your side and she’ll sure as shooting think about it. She will think about how good you are with children and what books you like and how you use your money. If you dream of Miss Gorgeous, she admittedly harbors hopes for Mr. Studly, but your lack of studliness will never be the deal-breaker. She knows enough of human nature to look deeper.

(And the minute she starts falling for you she’ll think you the studliest thing she ever saw. So it’s all good. Did I mention she’s a woman?)

I want to say this, with no disrespect to the hot young things: not one of them can hold a candle to her. She has a femininity that’s been tempered by time, mellowed, sweetened, tested by fire. She will comfort you as no one can comfort—follow your lead, admire your strength, and honor your manhood; time has taught her their value.

She is priceless. Thanks for noticing.

Love,

Shari

A happy ending

When was the last time you sat down and wrote a list of the things you do well as a mom? I made one of mine, the same day I made my tongue-in-cheek-wanna-be-list-of-semi-failures-and-full-regrets. And I surprised myself by again making fifteen items without difficulty. To tell you the truth this list is harder to share than the list of things I don’t do well.

  • I plan great birthday parties and make their cakes to order.
  • My children come easily to me with their little questions, fears, and problems.
  • I tease my children and tickle them and joke with them. We laugh a lot.
  • I introduce them to the amazing world of literature, and they are captivated.
  • I establish fun traditions: pizza Saturday nights, pancakes and popcorn on Sundays, holiday treats.
  • I apologize.
  • I sing.

If you can, I’d love to hear from you. What do you most enjoy as a mom? What do you do well? Some of you will be more uncomfortable with this exercise than with the “unreachables” list I recommended first… But if you are not up to sharing publicly, may I suggest you do it still, on your own? You will be surprised.

When I was all done, I made a final list—

Parenting Essentials I Never Want to Live Without

Love: My children are precious to me. I treat them with care.

Commitment: I’m not leaving this place. These are my people.

Joy: I do not enjoy every aspect of mothering, but I work to incorporate happiness into my life and my children’s.

Discipline: I do not allow my children to live without consequences.

Forgiveness: This is how we make sense of our many mistakes. Jesus is the Redeemer!

Shared Time and Interest: We invest in each other’s lives and enjoy time together.

Character: Together, we are being shaped into the image of Jesus.

Thanks for listening. Thanks for blessing me with your words. And before I stop talking on the subject, I want to give a shout-out to the many women from whom I am slowly learning motherhood. First of all, to my own Good Mom, and to my mother-in-law, and to my many wonderful sisters and sisters-in-law—some who do not have children yet but all of whom are beautiful examples of mother-love… And to my friends, some of the most capable and committed mothers I know… And to my single or childless friends. I know who you are. You too are mothers—joining forces to nurture the young lives around you. Many of you signed up on purpose for a life wrapped up in small ones who call other women “Mommy.” You are amazing, and my children are the richer for having you.

*****

And no, I haven’t forgotten the question I asked you. What do you do well? What do you enjoy most as a mom?

Another piece

Did you know that a person’s strengths are often also their weaknesses?

You can see it in marriage—a boyfriend is good at captivating his girl with a unique strength that later drives her insane. (Before marriage: “He’s such a music guy.” After marriage: “Does he ever think of anything else?” Before marriage: “Wow, check out the body-builder arms!” After marriage: “But good heavens! Does he have to work out All. The. Time?!”

It’s true in mothering as well. Did you know that the things you’re really good at as a mom will easily become your downfall? If you are spit-spot with schedules and deadlines and seamless systems, someday your children may complain that it’s all you cared about. If you are relaxed and casual, unscheduled and easy-going, you run the risk of your adult daughters coming back to say they wish to goodness you had taught them better…

But hang on, hang on. There’s a positive spin on this. Did you know that the weaknesses you fight every day of your mothering career are only the flip-sides of your greatest strengths? I’m going to put it into a little table for you so you can see.

You get angry when your children do wrong, and yell easily. You care passionately about your children’s choices, enough to get in their faces about it.
You are soft-spoken and slightly indulgent, letting too many disciplines slip by undealt-out. You are a person of mercy and grace, who loves second chances.
You have to force yourself to sing every Monday morning or you’ll spend your whole day sulky and sullen. Your children will remember a mother who sang over her laundry.
You are not good at schedules and hard lines. Your children love to be near their gentle, relaxed Mommy.
You are overdriven to keep a perfect house. You care about beauty and order, and are working hard to instill that love in your children.
You are bored to tears by playing House with your daughter and Trucks with your son. You will be the mom who invents novelty, who goes fun places, who plans celebrations.
You don’t like to spend money on toys. Your children will have some of the best-developed imaginations and “creative” repurposed toys in town.

Did you know it’s okay that we don’t all mother the same? Nowadays it’s harder to come to peace there, when technology has enabled us to peer into homes, policies, and styles all over the world. We save up Karen’s kid-friendly project for a rainy day, and admire Sarah’s positive spin on morning routines. We wish we were as creative a mother as Beth, with all her go-go ideas and fun events, while simultaneously longing to be as stable and content as Louann, who never goes anywhere and teaches her children to like it that way.

Gals. Let’s all take a large chill pill.

If we are in Christ and walking with Him, we are good moms. In fact I cannot imagine better moms for our children, and neither could God because He carefully placed them right here. Despite all of modern-communication-and-technology’s melting pot effect, we will parent differently. I will parent much like my mother did (or opposite, if I am reacting) but I will never parent just like Karen and Sarah and Beth and Louann. I can’t do it all.

It’s okay.

It’s okay to mother like a Zook or a Smith. It’s okay to mother like a Mennonite or an Old School or a Chic Young Thing. It’s okay to mother like it’s your first baby, or your twelfth. It’s okay to mother like {you}.

So what am I saying? Give up and wallow in our weaknesses? Yeah, that sounds good. And I’d like a large salted-caramel mocha to go with it. With whipped cream.

On second thought, perhaps it would be better to add another piece to the mix. A woman who’s not learning and maturing daily is not much fun to live with—just ask my husband.

So. I am a good mom.

I could also be a better mom.

I have not yet arrived in the Land of Milk and Honey, and until that day comes, every woman I meet has something to teach me (and a few of the men too, but I’m not sitting around banking on it).

These two truths are nearly impossible to hold in the hand at the same time, but that is the best place I can think of to live: I am a good mom. I could be a better mom. If we repeat just one of them over and over to ourselves like a mantra, we go really bad places: untouchable or desperate. But both together—ah. Now there’s a peaceful launch pad for world change.

Be grateful for the unique slant Jesus gave you. It keeps you real and humble and rooted. But grow from there… put out little starts and shoots and hopeful green leaves. You’re not perfect yet.

But you are greatly loved.

*****

What do you think? Does this ring true for you?

Three hundred voices

Confession: I’ve never figured out when exactly you start feeling like a Good Mom. When my third child was born and I went in for her nth-month checkup, I was shocked to hear my doctor’s words: “Well, you must be getting pretty good at this by now.”

Huh?? I’m Mennonite, okay? which means I’m officially a rookie till I’ve given birth to half a dozen.

I cook homemade meals, keep the house neat, discipline little ones, read that story for the ninety-sixth time, give lots of hugs and still, somehow, carry a terrible fear that in some way I am maiming my children, missing the key element or program or formula that will enable them to thrive.

And it’s getting harder. My grandmother had maybe thirty voices telling her how to be a Good Mom. She had a mom, a grandma and a doctor, plus a few peers, plus the old ladies of the community, and I think that’s about it. {I don’t think she even knew what a Good Mom was; she was just a Mom.} Today, for every mom and grandma there are 100 books, 100 websites, and 100 social media posts telling me how to do it: three hundred voices echoing around me, everywhere I turn.

With that plethora of info, that gathering of accumulated and sometimes conflicting voices, I am certain to do it right, right? No. I am certain to do it wrong—by some standard at least—and by my own standard, if I’m measuring by that accumulation.

Voice A stresses the importance of sleep patterns, Voice B stresses consistent discipline, Voice C stresses one on one time with your child, Voice D can’t say enough about the benefits of group and social interaction. E says homeschool, F says day school, G says let Grandma help, H says don’t take advantage of her. I says the latest and greatest toys, J says the less toys the better, K says provide well for them and L says don’t give them too much. M says strong boundaries, N says love love love. O says personal time outs and cool downs when they’re angry, P says don’t you dare walk away from them when they’re angry, Q says every child is afraid of things and R says if your child is fearful there’s a problem. S says enroll those kids in lessons and sports and T says give them tons of unstructured playtime. U says birth control, V says not on your life. W says let go of formulas! but X has just the formula for you, Y is the next new parenting book that solves all the problems and Z is the blog that interprets what voices A-Y are saying.

And believe me, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

It’s a shame, really. If somebody tells me I’m good at other things—cooking or sewing or organizing or communicating—I can feel a glow of happiness inside me. Yes, I love it. Yes, I can do it. Awww; I’m so happy you told me.

But mothering?

No. {There’s always so much more I should be doing.} No. {If only you knew the mistakes I’ve made.} No. I’m not a Good Mom. End of story.

Do the rest of you have any idea what I’m talking about? Girls, we have a problem.

I told you I read a wonderful book lately called Adoption: Choosing It, Living It, Loving It, by Dr. Ray Guerendi. I learned a lot about adoption but even more about being a mom. The buoyant humor of the author made me chuckle. And he kept surprising me by condensing the whole of parenthood into a very small and succinct wordlist.

“Being a parent is grounded in some basics—love, morals, confident authority, supervision, common sense, and good judgment.” (p.38)

“You are still persevering in the staples of parenthood—sacrifice, discipline, supervision.” (p. 129)

“Continue to show the good things of motherhood—commitment, sacrifice, guidance.” (p. 132)

They weren’t the words I expected him to choose. They didn’t even hint at getting the right method. And they were so much more about trajectory, pledges, and staying power than deep emotional connection, zen feelings, and frequent playdates.

So I started writing. What am I reaching for? What do I imagine a Good Mom would do? I began my list, and hit fifteen items without breaking a sweat. I will share a scant half with you.

  • She would definitely conceive as many children as possible. {Please just laugh. I’m Mennonite, okay? But this is not an intro to discussing the ethics of family planning, and don’t you forget it.}
  • She would play toys on the floor with her children. A lot.
  • She would not find herself at a loss to know how to respond to their behavior.
  • She would never raise her voice or speak words she’d regret.
  • She wouldn’t feed them so much sugar.
  • She would be all about Mommy Mommy Mommy.
  • She would get up early in the morning and cook a hot breakfast.

Ecco. I’m terrible at all of these. Which may have something to do with why they stand out to me–  What I want to know is, who is setting this standard?

More next time. Meanwhile, what’s the ideal you’re reaching for? What’s the Good Mom thing you really, really want to do and can’t seem to pull off?

*****

I’m encouraging candor, not defeatism. We’ll get to the stuff we do right; hang in there.

Meanwhile, here’s a quote to chew on a while, from Elisa Morgan writing lately on A Holy Experience: “No parent, no matter how dedicated, expert, present and loving can produce a perfectly healthy and happy adult. Such a feat is simply not within our power.”

Strength, weakness, presence

Thank you for your beautiful comments. You talked about the components so well. Personality. Failure. Life stages. Good strength versus bad strength. God’s strength versus our own. Well said!

Gina also shared some excellent thoughts here.

What is the opposite of strength? You mentioned many words—weakness, brokenness, battle, fear, surrender, helplessness, high-maintenance, infirmity, vulnerability.

Vulnerability is my personal favorite—the one I run from two miles away.

*****

Once upon a time I waited in a bathroom stall [my usual place of retreat in times of mental storm] for the courage to face a difficult situation.

It was a particularly unnerving situation, open to endless variation. It could turn out one way and be super. It could turn out another way and be okay. It could turn out–oh my–nearly infinite ways that would be shameful and embarrassing. And it could turn out one way that would be the most devastating of all.

The whole thing pivoted on the choices of a person I had never seen before, and on my own performance under stress.

I waited and prayed. “Please Lord make me strong. Help me to come to peace. This knot in my stomach must certainly go away before I can do anything… and must be a sign that I am not trusting you. Please make me strong.”

I prayed.

And gradually, as the conflict did not go away, I came to realize that it was impossible for me as a woman to enter such a situation in perfect calm. I was conflicted, and understandably so: a turmoil of secret hopes and fears. And so I began to change my prayer, from “Please make me strong,” to “Please protect my heart. I am a mess. I hope and I fear; I am powerful and vulnerable. Please help me to bring all of me into this situation. Let me be There. I trust that your Spirit will accompany me and cover my nakedness of soul.”

He did.

And I was not strong, but I was there, and I was in Him. The situation was intense. It turned out the one way that was most devastating of all, and He did battle for me as I cried all the way home.

Jesus does not need me to be strong. What do I mean? Through my whole life, there have always been people for whom I had to be strong. A little sister–(I knew that if we both cried at the same time, the world would cave in). A struggling friend—(I promised never to betray her secret). A frightened child—(When she runs to me panicking, she needs a stable Mommy to anchor to). This is not all bad, being strong for other people. “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” But Jesus is the one person I never need to be strong for. Sometimes I think I do. When I have neglected Him in prayer I start coming to Him in the comforting and apologetic tone I would use with a family member I’ve temporarily forgotten. Sometimes I try to cover for Him and help solve His problems. That is all nonsense. He is the strong one, and I am a child.

But it begs the question—In how many situations would He carry me in my weakness, if I weren’t so busy Being Strong?

In Christ we have access to all kinds of power heretofore unknown. The power that raised Him from the dead dwells in us. His strength rests on us, empowers us. He carries our weakness in His body. As we go on together, we receive His strength into the very fiber of our beings, so that we are truly stronger than before and can do things we would once have run from. And yet He keeps us on the edge of ourselves. About the time we gain strength in [these] areas, He gently uncovers [several more] in which we are weak and must begin again. He seems to have a special grace for the weak, and each time I feel utterly worthless and undone (Oh Jesus, have I walked with you so long and yet still have so far to go?), He reaches with grace to tell me He sees me. He loves me. He has not given up on me.

You see I am not against being strong. I am against the need to be strong. I am against the careful avoidance of weakness.

Strength is a good word. And like other good words (love, grace, freedom), it’s open to infinite abuse, partly because we are human and like to twist things (undoubtedly by mistake) and partly because it is a word wrapped in paradox. (When I am weak, then am I strong.)

Sometimes when I’m focused on Being Strong—even when I am trying my best to stay “in His strength”—all I am really doing is putting on armor; turning off parts of my heart that do not measure up: my tears, my sensitivities, my desires, my fears.

All set. Chin up. I’m ready to face the situation.

I am starting to believe that true power is all about presence. We are shy of the “power” word, especially for women, but I mean it in a good way—as in “God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” Influence. Effectiveness.

When I go into a difficult situation determined to be strong, I often end very strong but not at all effective. I’m so busy holding it together that I can’t take hold of anything else–the hearts of the people around me, the lessons He wants me to learn, the gifts He’s offering. Alternately, if I go into a situation with my whole presence, with my fears and my desires and my potential for being hurt (which is all “vulnerable” means, really: I can be badly hurt because I don’t have my armor on)—there, ironically, is where my power as a woman lies.

The opposite of strong does not have to be “weak,” though that is a good word too and often used positively in Scripture (here), but “dependent” (not independent), “needy” (for Him and His people), “small” and “protected.”

While it is true that I grow in grace from strength to strength, it is also true that the more I access the strength of Jesus, the smaller and more dependent I become, a younger and younger child until the day I will be new born in Him, drawing sustenance from no other source. And this too is good.