Grief and Parenting, Part 5678

I didn’t take my daughters to my mother’s grave. 

I meant to. It was something that I intended to do while we were in the area for my sister’s wedding. My brother had even asked if we could go together. That was something we hadn’t done since he and I were small children, but it didn’t happen. We didn’t go. 

We had the opportunity but we didn’t go. My girls don’t know the difference, of course. At three months and nearly two years, it wouldn’t occur to them that Mommy had missed this opportunity. They barely know that Mommy had a Mommy, not just in the usual way that children can’t fathom relationships beyond themselves but in the fact that Mommy had a Mommy that died. Mommy had a Mommy that they will never know. 

Last time I was so close to my mother’s grave, I took my daughter. It was just the two of us and it felt important. It felt like something I had to do to introduce my then ten-month old daughter to her grandmother. So why didn’t I feel that way again with my second daughter? Or why didn’t it feel just as important to bring my eldest daughter back? Surely she doesn’t remember the last time. Repetition is kinda important at this age but I didn’t do it. 

We didn’t go and it’s only now that I’m wondering why. On Thursday, I’ll have the opportunity to be interviewed for In Other Words which is a ministry of United Church of Christ Longmont. That’s right. This lovely church in Colorado hosts a podcast that focuses on the unique issues parents face. I am amazed by the brilliance of this idea and so honored to be among its guests. The host and pastor found me through my blog. She actually found me through this post and suggested that I was an expert on parenting with grief. I laughed when I read this in my email. I’ve only been a parent for two years whereas my grief has consumed thirty-two years of my life. 

I was back East away from the Texas heat for a big family event and it was wonderful. It was wonderful to be together because there is something truly magical about placing your child in the arms of a cousin or aunt or grandparent, but then it was my sister’s wedding, my sister who is the only child of my step-mother. I don’t see much value in pointing out that Mary is my half sister  or even that Jana is my step-mother. They are family and I love them fiercely, but I do wonder how to best explain this to my girls. How do I tell them about Mommy’s Other Mommy without it tarnishing their love of the grandmother they know? How do I share my sadness with them? Or maybe the better question is when? 

I’ll wait because they’re not quite old enough but if I’m honest, it feels dishonest to wait. It feels just like it did when I was eight years old and laughed at something silly when I should have been sad because my mother had died. Gosh, I wish that feeling would go away. It has been long enough but it persists. It hasn’t yet gone away. I still don’t know how to overcome it. Until I do, there will be a picture of my mother cradling me in my girls’ room. It doesn’t feel like enough but its all I know to do right now.

I don’t yet have words to explain how it feels to have my mother in the background. Since I became a parent, she’s more present than she was. There are memories I didn’t know I had and instincts that have startled me. My mom is here as much as she’s not here. 

Maybe that’s why I didn’t feel like I needed to go to her grave this time. Grief has taught me in this new season that there’s nowhere I need to go to find her. She’s always with me. 

Bless This Mess

In the days before my second child was born, I watched my toddler play while I flipped through the pages of Bless this Mess: A Modern Guide to Faith and Parenting in a Chaotic World. I read every word offered by my United Church of Christ colleague Molly Baskette and her former church member Ellen O’Donnell. I cherished each word that these two wise women had to offer me but I’ll admit that it felt a tad strange.

Here is my toddler who doesn’t fit into the age brackets for which this book wisely counsels. She has no idea what is about to befall her though I did everything in my power to talk endlessly about the baby in Mommy’s belly. We tried to tackle every transition and mitigate every disaster even as my husband was mere days away from deployment. How in the world can I spend any time worrying about what struggles my daughters will face as teenagers when I have no idea what the next nine months will hold?

Bless this mess, indeed. Bless it all. Bless every last bit of it.

That was the affirmation I found in these pages. Here is a friendship born in the struggle of parenting young children. It’s a friendship that I’m not sure I would have allowed myself if I had been the pastor. Molly had a young son while she was still pastor of First Church Somerville UCC. (It’s also the church that she references in her book Read Good Church.) There she met Ellen when Ellen came looking for how to raise a young Christian. She didn’t identify with her Catholic roots anymore but she wasn’t sure what else there was. Molly became her pastor and they carpooled to their kids’ school together. I have shied away from close relationships with those in the congregations I’ve served. I’ve chosen firmer boundaries before I had kids. It’s something I couldn’t help but ponder as these two women shared their hopes and fears in parenting.

The military has required me to be a stay-at-home mom. Opportunity has not emerged for ministry in this season, but if it did and I was serving a church, would my boundaries be different? Would I suddenly relate to my age cohort in this whole new way just because I’m now a parent? It seems messy and perhaps it should be.

Both ministry and parenting are messy. This world is messy. It is so messy that there are ethical, wise people that are choosing not to have children, but that wasn’t my choice. I wanted to have children. I knew that I wanted to have children the minute I met my husband. I don’t think I realized it until I cracked the spine of this book but I needed blessing.

I needed to hear words of blessing in making this choice. I needed to be reminded that even in all that I fear about what challenges the world will offer my girls, there is grace. There is wonder. There is even delight. It is what these two women offer in the final chapter of this treasured book. They remind parents like me that there is lots to fear. We might even be raising small animals in an age of fear but this wonderful tome reframes that fear theologically. Picking up on the ancient wisdom in Proverbs, it is suggested that the “right way” to raise our children is to pay greater attention to who God created them. It is this that is our stewardship as parents. It is this that is our spiritual practice. Our daily contemplative prayer is to notice who our children are becoming. Fear need not win, but our minute-by-minute attention to love. This little nugget has already reframed how I approach all the worries and struggles of parenting. It’s reminded me to breathe. To slow down. To encourage my tiny toddler to share her feelings even when she doesn’t yet have words for everything on her little heart.

It’s the kind of book I want to give to friends. It’s the book I wish I had had ten years ago when I was the pastor that was supposed to know how to faithfully parent small children. It’s what I like most about this book: it’s not focused on how to raise progressive Christian children but how to best parent as a progressive Christian. I want my children to know my values. I want them to understand my faith even if they don’t choose to profess my faith when they’re old enough to do so. I need to know focus on my own actions so that I’m practicing forgiveness, sabbath, service, honoring my body and my stuff (including my finances) in such a way that my kids can see my faith.

I want this because I’m a Christian. Heck, I’m a pastor. I’m also married to an atheist. I co-parent with someone who does not share my faith and that’s the struggle I find in these pages. It is assumed by both Molly and Ellen that you have a partner who shares your progressive Christian values. I don’t have that. Honestly, I wonder how many parents that pick up this book have that. I think about all of the women that have brought their children to church while their partners did other things. I totally get Molly’s insistence that readers seek out a church and regularly worship as much as I love the practices she shares for rituals at home but these are not things that will work with my family. We’ll have to find a different way and there’s still no book written for that hope of progressive parenting. As many questions and hopes that this book offers, there is still some mess that needs blessing.

I am honored to have been part of the Bless This Mess Launch Team where I got a free copy of this book from Convergence Press for my honest review. It is my greatest joy to recommend this book to other parents. 

New Traditions for Our Family

My husband is an atheist.

That’s right. I am an ordained minister in the Christian Church and I married a man who could care less about anything remotely related to God.

He will be quick to amend that. He will say that he does care. He cares because I care but it’s not quite the same. It’s not the same as having a partner seated next to you every Sunday in church. It’s not the same as having a spouse that shares some similar experience from childhood. He didn’t have that. Mine was weird.

My father is also an atheist. Or at least, at one time, he said he could care less about God. It was shortly after my mom had died. They’d fallen in love, had two children and then she was diagnosed with breast cancer. They’d been been married eleven years when she died. It was not the ending he would have imagined. It certainly wasn’t what he wanted. He had every right to be mad at God, but that wasn’t how I dealt with it. Instead of rejecting God, I snuck off to church.

It was, as I tell those in the churches I’ve served, my young rebellion.

Marrying my husband was not a rebellion. He just happens to be an atheist. He’s an atheist who chose to marry a Christian pastor and regularly jokes about the bake sales he’ll host as a pastor’s husband when he retires from the Army. There are a lot of things that make our marriage wonderful, but Christmas can be hard.

For you see, I adore Christmas. It starts with Advent. It’s a season that echoes with my soul every single year. It calls me into greater attention with the needs of this broken world and forces me to focus on what I can do to bring hope, peace, joy and especially love into a world that needs so much more of these things, but I love the decorations. I love the lights lining the roof of my neighbor’s home. I love the gift giving and the twinkly tree that I turn on again the minute I wake up.

I love the candles held in the darkened sanctuary as we sing Silent Night. I love the cookies. Well, I love the cookies when I’m not pastoring a church and there are just too many cookies. I love the carols and sappy movies. I love the mall Santas. I love every bit of it.

My husband doesn’t love it. He doesn’t hate it but it doesn’t have the same magic for him. He doesn’t get excited like I do. That would be hard to accomplish for anyone.

He did, however, agree to raise our children in my faith. We talked about it before we got married and it’s still a conversation we continue to share. There are things that come up, things that neither one of us ever expected but things that we need to keep in the ongoing conversation of how we might try to raise the one kid we do have and any other children that might become a part of our family.

So we keep talking. We keep talking because it’s important.

We’ve made some decisions already. We decided we’re not traveling for the holidays. Our children will know a lot of change in their young lives. There will be lots of moves and no matter where we might call home, we want them to have an experience of the familiar. We want them to know that these are the things that our family does.

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Our first Easter Vigil

Earlier this year, we made a list. We picked all of the days that we would want to celebrate and how we might cherish these special days in our family. We talked about what traditions were a part of our younger years and what really matters to us. It’s a work in progress. We both know it will change but we started with an Easter Vigil. I explained the tradition and the big parts of the liturgy to my husband and then suggested a redacted version that might work for our family. Of course, it involves lighting a big fire and food. He was won over and it was wonderful.

I opened the document earlier today to remember what we intended for Christmas. It was blank and perhaps that is right. It’s our first Christmas where it is just us. It’s the first year where we get to try new things and see what fits our family.

Truthfully, the Easter Vigil is the only one we really have figured out. There are other things we want to do, but our baby girl isn’t old enough yet. Service is important to both of us and it’s something we want to share with our children, but there isn’t much that a one-year old can do to serve. There are other traditions that I know will emerge once we all start sitting down to dinner together at the same time, but neither my husband or I have our act together to sit down at 5 o’clock to eat together.

There are things that I hope will happen but I don’t really know what will happen. I don’t know how these practices will evolve in our family. I don’t know what will end up sticking and that’s hard for me. I love a good plan.

So it is with Christmas. I’ve made plans. I’ve planned a menu and wrapped presents. I made elf hats like my great-grandmother made us all wear on Christmas Eve though we will wear them on Christmas Day. We are going out to dinner on Christmas Eve and there will be the cinnamon rolls that I loved as a kid on Christmas morning. I’ve prepared for the details but not for the wonder.

That’s what always surprises me on Christmas. There is something mysterious and magical that happens. That’s what I want to emerge from all of these new traditions that we make for our family but it’s hard to plan for magic. It’s something that comes. It surprises and hopefully delights. My job is to wait for it and to be ready when it comes.

 

Raising White Kids With Curious Questions and GIVEAWAY!!

It was only a few months ago that I found myself returning again and again to sort through the children’s books at Half Price Books. (Don’t get me started on the lack of independent booksellers in Texas. It’s beyond upsetting to me and so I can only daydream about such wonders as Longfellow Books and Orca Books in the places I’ve called home. Sigh.) I had read somewhere in those days about the importance of creating a library for your child that was not full of white kids, but reflected instead the wonder and diversity of God’s creation.

I didn’t have any idea about how I was going to raise a child with a greater capacity for anti-racism than I’ve known, but I was determined to try. I knew I could do this. I could do this one small thing to surround her with images of children from different cultures and races. I could do this. What I wasn’t prepared for — an why I kept going back to Half Price Books again and again — was how hard this would be.

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There are just so many white kids in children’s books. If it’s not a duck or a panda that features as the main character in the story, it’s a white kid. Some of these books were books I loved as a child. Some were completely new to me just as parenting is totally new to me. I confess that I feel totally clueless but I’m determined to get it right and to do that I need the wisdom of others. I need support I can’t seem to find in my new home in Texas which is why I was so overjoyed to read Jennifer Harvey’s wisdom in Raising White Kids: Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America.

I was somewhat familiar with Dr. Harvey’s work since her earlier book had caught my attention when I was still serving as a full-time pastor. I knew she had something important to say to the church, but I admit that I didn’t do anything more than save Dear White Christians to my To-Read list on Goodreads. It wasn’t enough and I want to do better. I need to do better for not just for my child, but for all of our children. For our nation. For our world.

Staring at those shelves at Half Price Books, when my baby girl was still growing inside me, I thought that I had to have all of the answers. All of the other parenting books I had read thus far were emphatic on this point. I needed to have a plan. I needed to be prepared with the right gear and the right attitude. It was all up to me as the parent.

Harvey quickly challenges this assumption and invites parents to partner with their kids. She puts it simply with the claim that challenging the forces of white supremacy can be as simple as “listen[ing] carefully and follow[ing] our children’s lead.” She encourages exploration and asking questions together rather than taking on some charge to be the expert who knows everything.

Maybe that works for other parents, but it never worked for me. It’s not how I ever approached teaching whether it was with young children or mature adults in the churches I’ve served. I always engaged the topic — no matter what it was — with questions. My first church dubbed this line of questioning as Elsa Questions. They would sigh when I asked them in the same way that I imagine my daughter will one day.

Raising White Kids invites me to affirm this curiosity in both my parenting and in my justice-seeking. It is a balm to my soul and gets me even more excited about this work. It emboldens me. It makes me feel like this is possible. I can do this.

I confess that it’s my favorite part of this book. It’s emphasized in different ways and repeated in a multitude of perspectives, but it is this courage to be vulnerable with our kids that really struck home for me. I don’t have to have all of the answers. I don’t have to have it figured out. I don’t even have to have the perfect library. (Harvey has more to say about this library that I found helpful.) But I do need to be open to asking questions. I need to be committed to my own learning. I need to be brave enough to challenge other white adults as we try to build another world together.

Harvey encourages questions. She poses examples. She invites a conversation and I so can see that this would be an amazing discussion piece for a moms group, a parenting potluck or a study for Sunday School teachers. The one thing that I didn’t like about this book — and this may be because it’s written to start a conversation and not to conclude it — is that Harvey is clear that engaging children in questions appropriate to their development is important, and yet she never outlines what children understand about race at what developmental age. I know very well that children understand things at a different rate from my own work with children and grief, but I confess that I have no idea what children understand about race at what age. This is hinted at in this excellent book but I wish it were unpacked more.

What I loved most about this book is that Harvey is clear that children possess a knowledge and wisdom of their own. If we are brave enough to engage them in thoughtful questions, they will teach us. Teaching children has taught me this. Any adult that has listened in on a children’s sermon in church should know this. It’s not just cute answers, but that our kids repeatedly astound us with what they observe. It is our task to be brave enough to listen to what they have to say and to dare to be curious with them.

If you’re curious about children and believe that another world is possible, you should read this book. You should encourage your friends to read it. Give it as a baby shower gift. Read it with your book club and really discuss it. Don’t just drink wine but really have the discussion. This conversation is important and it takes practice for all of us to ask these kinds of questions of our children and ourselves. We must learn to practice this kind of curiosity.

I am beyond thrilled to partner with RevGalsBlogPals and Abingdon Press to offer my enthusiasm for this new publication. I received an advance reader copy of Raising White Kids: Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America in exchange for an honest review and the opportunity to give away a copy on my blog.

To win a free copy of Raising White Kids, please comment below and follow my writing on Facebook! I will randomly select a winner by 10 am CT on Thursday March 1, 2018. If you are the winner, you will be notified on my blog and given instructions to contact me so I can send you your free copy.