Monday, May 20, 2013

The Illusion of Control

My kids are older now and having older kids can be kinda scary. Not that having younger kids isn't scary. Some of us have spent the duration of parenthood downright terrified of the responsibility involved in raising the screaming masses set before us. But having older kids is just different. As I lay awake last night with my old buddy, Migraine, I tried to understand it. I think it all has to come down to control. Or rather the illusion of control.

It is easy to think, and in some cases it is true, that we can control our children when they are young. And it is easy to think, and some "experts" will tell us, that if we control our children when they are young we will, in effect, control them when they are old. They use Proverbs 22:6 ("Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.") ad nauseum as a guarantee for their formula for success.

But the fact of the matter is, we can influence, but we can never truly control. The younger they are, the more variables we can control, but we can never really control them, because we can never really control their hearts.

Control is such an evil sounding word (think Big Brother) but we all want it. You might be the most baby-averse person on the planet but open your loins and push out that bundle and in no time there is nothing you wouldn't do to protect that pile of squawking, wrinkled flesh. God made us that way.

But from the very beginning, even before the very beginning, there was so, so much we could never control. We can't control if we conceive, unless we opt for in vitro, in which case we can't control if the fertilized egg will take. We can't control if the baby will thrive or die in utero. We can't control when we go into labor, though from the dawn of time, we have tried . . . OH HOW WE'VE TRIED!

Babies should be easy enough. We can control where they are, who they are with, what they wear, etc., but those of my friends with newborns—and the rest of us, if we can even remember those early days (likely erased forever due to a combination of sleep deprivation and shock)—know that you can't make a baby sleep. Or eat, for that matter. You can lead a horse to water but . . . .

Older kids and even toddlers really aren't any different. We can childproof the house into Fort Knox and serve up only the healthiest of fare but somehow . . . SOMEHOW, unless our little wonders are kept in the dog kennel 24/7 (and even then...these kids are tiny Houidinis of the cleverest type), SOMETHING'S gonna happen. That's why stitches were invented, and Dust Busters, and Poison Control. You can't really get ahead of a kid or get into his head. (It truly never occurred to me to tell my 8 year-old son not saw open an aerosol can with a steak knife. To his credit, he claims he knew to check and make sure it was empty first and, indeed, nothing blew up.)

Then there is school. Ah, the choice that has split a thousand churches, or so I've heard. Parents have different reasons the education choices they make for their children. Homeschooling obviously provides greater variable control and public schooling probably the least, but it is still the variables that we are controlling and sometimes not even those very well. We opted for moderate variable control and sent our kids to a very solid Christian school. But even there, there were dud teachers, and evil science fair projects, and unfair athletic coaches, and taunting classmates. Even there, there was heartache. Nothing crushes a mother's heart than when her third grade daughter gets into the car at the end of the school day and hands her a note: "Mommy, nobody would sit with me at lunch today." No control over her broken heart. No control at all.

It never ceases to amaze me how different kids are. And a lot of it has to do with temperament, and temperament—or how we are wired and knit together in our mother's womb—is not something we can control. Take my two oldest children. Same two parents (I promise—I was there), both girls, born less than two years apart. Same rules, same variables, same schooling, same younger siblings, same major life events, same bedroom for 18.5 years. And you would never even guess that they are remotely related. They are both beautiful (an objective fact), but in vastly different ways. Their personalities, interests, strengths, and weaknesses are so different they can have a tough time even relating (maturity is making that easier). Don't anybody ever tell me that all kids are alike!

We don't wire our children. God does. It is like he sends them into this world with a backpack filled with their hair color, eye color, body type, personality traits, learning style, athletic ability, and on and on. And none of these things we can control (except for hair color, but that's another story).

I think you get my point. I've already written too much. Parenthood is hard. It is **** hard. But I think it is harder when we think we have control over something that we really don't. Sure, we can lead that horse to water . . . well, even that depends on the skill of the one leading and the temperament of the horse itself. But say we actually get the horse to the water, there is no power outside of the God of the universe that can make that horse drink.

Sure, from the very beginning, we can (and in a lot of cases should) control many basic things. What they eat (sometimes). What they wear (well, if you want to get OCD about it). Who teaches our children and what they teach them. What movies they watch and what music they hear (for a while, anyway). We can control who they play with, when they get their driver's license, and maybe even where they go to college. Basically, we can control, to a certain extent, what goes in. We cannot control how it is perceived and how it is processed and how plays out in their lives. Yes, we can speak, guide, discipline, model, train (for some reason that word makes my skin crawl), but we can never truly control them because we can never control their heart.

That fact brings me great relief. I am not qualified to control my child's heart. I didn't create it, I don't keep it beating every second of every minute of every hour of every day. I am so thankful that the very Creator of my child's heart is the one who can work his will in it. Last I saw, I had not been given the title of Holy Spirit. I'll take the influencing and do the best I can, but I think I'll leave the controlling up to him.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Mother's Day Musings

Today is Mother's Day. I used to hate Mother's Day. I still don't care for it, really. I don't like days that put people on the spot. Days where you are supposed to have sentimental feelings and buy sappy cards and give the perfect gift to prove your love and appreciation. I am sure that there are people out there who see great things about Mother's Day (especially those in the greeting card, flower, and restaurant industries) but I see potential for so much pain: closed wombs, lost children, fractured relationships. This second Sunday in May is, to some, a reminder of loss and can be an emotional, if not visible, divide between the haves and the have-nots.

There were years that I dreaded Mother's Day. My mother and I had a rather tense relationship for a long, long time and, well, I have never been good at forking over the goods on demand. In her insecurity, she craved love from me and, in my immaturity, I found myself unable to give it, at least not on her terms.

My mother had grown up a lonely, only child. So had my father. She was a brown haired, brown eyed, stunning Southern belle and he was a blond haired, blue eyed dashing hardcore yankee and Navy pilot. They married right after WWII and spent eight years moving around the country. By 1954 she was ready to come home. My father retired from active military duty and took a job with her father's construction company and they built a family. There were four kids in all, with me as the last and bottom of the heap.

Somewhere along the way things went bad with their marriage and after 32 years, they divorced. My mother never recovered emotionally. By that time I was the only one left at home. Maybe one day I will tell my whole story but for now let's just say that life was hard and confusing for both of us. During my high school and college years, the harder I pulled away and longed for independence the harder she pulled back. It seemed to be my responsibility to meet all her emotional needs. And I have never performed well under pressure.

As an adult I wanted to love her and honor her in a biblical way but could never figure out how to do that without feeling caught up and trapped in a vortex of dysfunction and unrealistic expectations. I did the only thing I knew. I avoided her.

When I look back now, it breaks my heart to see just how much I broke hers. She died four years ago next week. God gave me nine weeks to prepare. I was there when she stepped from this earth into the presence of God. I think she knew I loved her then. I know she knows it now.

I myself am a mother of four and am still in the process of nudging my youngest two children through their teen years. Being a mother is much harder than I ever expected. I see how easy it is to take things personally, react poorly, and even run out of emotional gas and check out of parenting altogether. The fear of perpetuating the cycle of unrealistic expectations sometimes has me paralyzed. I so do NOT want to put upon my children the burden of propping up my fragile soul.

It is incredibly humbling to walk in someone else's shoes and experience life from a different angle. In some ways I love my mother more now than I ever did, perhaps because I understand her more. She was a person, just like myself, bumbling through the heart-wrenching boot camp called motherhood, with some successes and a good number of failures. But as time moves on, the bad memories fade to gray and the good ones grow more vivid and I wish I could wish her a Happy Mother's Day one more time. That was her language.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Repentance and Parenthood

I think we all have things we said we would do or never do as parents....until we became parents and we found that it was so much easier said than done. I had so many of them. Lists and lists and lists of them, if not on paper then at least in my muddled head. Some were mundane while others were harder to pin down but so much more important. Well, my kids grew older and my ideals fell, one by one, to the onslaught of reality. But through it all I was determined in this basic calling:  I would never to use my children to meet my emotional needs. I know too well what it is like to be in that position and I never ever wanted to lay that burden on the young backs of my children.

There comes a time when you have to realize just how far you have strayed from the path. Yesterday was that day. For years I beat myself up, in front of my children, for my failings as a mother. My security, my significance, my value as a person, was so wrapped up in being for them all I felt I was supposed to be and doing for them all I was supposed to do and loving them in the way everybody said I was supposed to love them. Motherhood was an idol to me and my children suffered the consequences.

The other day I wrote about how I try to do God's job, which is a really, really bad idea. My kids were never created to do God's job either and it is totally unfair and downright wrong to expect them to. They have to be free to change and grow and run and stumble and climb and fall and try and fail without my fragile self-image dependent on their performance. They have to be free to relate to me in ways I don't always understand, and love me sometimes in "languages" I don't speak, without my whole being feeling threatened and crushed.

Placing any such huge burden on my children and giving them so much power over my own spiritual and emotional and, yes, sometimes even physical health is wrong. It is sin. What to do? Repent. Repent and believe.

Q. 87. What is repentance unto life?

A. Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience

"Turn from it unto God." "Turn from it unto God." "Turn from it UNTO God." This is turning from believing a lie to beholding that truth. This is relationship. This is turning from an idol that cannot save to a God who can. I can love my children without condition because God loves me without condition. Repentance is a beautiful thing.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Doing God's Job

We have a phrase in real estate. If a system within a house (electrical, plumbing, roofing, foundation, HVAC, etc.) is doing its job, it is "performing the function for which intended." The roof was built to keep you dry and it should be doing just that and on and on and on.

I was created for a reason, too. To do things like loving God with all my heart, soul, and mind and loving my neighbor as myself (Matthew 22:37-39), and good works (Ephesians 2:10), and, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism says, "to glorify God and enjoy him forever." But I find that I really don't spend much time performing the function for which intended because I am too busy performing functions that God never, ever intended me to perform at all. I can't do my job because I am too stinking busy doing God's job . . . or at least trying to—with miserable results.

It is time to get this through my thick head:
  • I wasn't created to build my kingdom on this earth. That includes having the house I want in the place I want it with the weather that I want around it and the stuff I want in it.
  • I wasn't created to impress people and make them think highly of me and put me on a pedestal because that is where I get my worth.
  • I wasn't created to worry about my appearance.. . . how pretty or fit or thin or young I look or what I wear.
  • I wasn't created to defy gravity or the aging process.
  • I wasn't created to get things done at the expense of loving other people.
  • I wasn't created to work the system in my favor and "fake it til you make it."
  • I wasn't created to so that the world could revolve around me.
  • I wasn't created to come up with all the answers.
  • I wasn't created to create my children in my own image.
  • I wasn't created to be the Holy Spirit to my children.
  • I wasn't created to believe in myself or follow my heart.
  • I wasn't created to fear or huddle in a corner in self-protection.
  • I wasn't created to fret while the nations rage.
  • I wasn't created to have my life wrapped up in a neat and tidy box.
  • I wasn't created to be in control of my world at all.
I was created by God for his pleasure and his glory. To love him. To love my neighbor. To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with him. (Micah 6:8). I can leave the rest up to him. That's his job after all.

On Emotions and Instrument Panels

I am an emotional person. If you have read any of my other posts, you will laugh at this and say that I am merely stating the way too obvious. When I took the lengthy test for the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, I tested out a high "F" (for Feeling, as opposed to Thinking). In fact I tested out as high on the "F" scale as possible. My husband calls me one bundled up raw nerve ending. Sigh.

Being a feeling person is not without its benefits. I tend to be compassionate and caring and understanding in an often dog-eat-dog world. I guess God made me that way for a reason. But feeling things so deeply can have its down side. Sometimes life just plain hurts.

I think the hardest thing about feeling so deeply is that, at times, my emotions can completely hijack my life and carry it off  to some umpteenth level of  hell. What gives? There ends up being much more than sheer emotion going on.

A few years ago I watched a science video about flying airplanes. This video went into detail about the difference between flying by sight and flying by instrument. When the fellow started talking I assumed that he was going to say that flying by sight is crucial to master because instruments in airplanes can be wrong and you need to learn how to fly without them. That's not the case at all.

Some of y'all remember back in 1999 when John F. Kennedy, Jr., along with his wife and sister-in-law, disappeared. John was trained to fly by sight. It turns out that you learn how to do that first, before you learn how to fly by instrument. People who fly by sight are to fly only in daylight and only in clear weather conditions. Why? Because without the visual cues, your body loses its ability to determine where it is in space. It is called spatial disorientation. 

A few months ago I read the book The Day John Died by Christopher Andersen. In it he recreates the last few minutes of John's life as he flew his Piper Saratoga toward Martha's Vineyard. He describes what likely happened. The vertigo. The disorientation. The plummeting plane. He describes how one instinctual move can result in what is called the "graveyard spiral," sending the plane toward the surface of the ocean at ninety-nine feet per second. 

Interestingly, this is what Andersen says:

Even as the Piper Saratoga dropped from the sky, there remained one slender hope. John might yet regain control of the plane. It had been done before. "If you believe what your instruments are telling you and focus on getting your wings level, " [veteran military pilot Edward] Francis said, "you can recover—even at the last minute. But the degree of concentration it requires is total." 

Well, the wreckage and the bodies of all on board were found a few days later. JFK Jr.'s confidence in his own ability to fly in poor conditions and his ignorance of the instruments proved disastrous. 

I don't know if you are seeing the parallel yet, but I sure do. I seem to spend my life flying by sight. I spend my life believing all the input going on around me. Sometimes that input is coming from the world at large, sometimes from my own insecurities or desires, and sometimes that input is coming from the pit of hell itself. I get disoriented. I think up is down and down is up. I jerk my plane right and left to no avail. And sometimes I throw myself into the dreaded graveyard spiral. All because I am failing to fly by the instruments.

The conditions out there are bad. I can't do it on my own. These people who say "Just believe in yourself" . . . I just want to say that is bull****. I would use the actual word but some would be offended. But I call 'em like I see 'em. No. I will NOT believe in myself. I have no ability within myself to know when up is down and down is up. I can only trust in what doesn't fail. Ever.

God has given me an instrument panel. His very word. Truth. So when my emotions have run off with me, I have to stop and ask if I have taken my eyes off the dashboard. Sometimes I haven't and my heart just hurts because a lot of time life just hurts. But other times I have gotten myself into deep trouble because I am flying by the seat of my pants and trusting more in my own assessment of the situation than in what the instruments are saying.

Sure, there is pain in life. There are plenty of examples in the Bible of sadness and mourning and grief and anger. These are not wrong, in and of themselves. But there are also plenty of places where we are told NOT to fret, NOT to fear, NOT to worry. When I find myself doing just that, I'm not trusting the instrument panel.

So the next time my emotions run off without me and send me into a graveyard spiral toward the pit of despair, I need to stop and focus on the instrument panel. What is God saying about this? Where is the gospel in this situation? What is true? Maybe that is what Paul means when he tells us to "think on these things" (Phil.4:8).

We cannot trust our own perceptions and what seems right. That will prove disastrous every single time. Praise God he has provided a better way.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Slippery Slope of Doom

Last Thursday I crossed a Rubicon of sorts. Until then I could still say that I was closer to 49 than I was to 50. Not anymore. I have crested the hill and am headed, lock, stock and barrel, full speed ahead down that Slippery Slope of Doom.

I haven't always dreaded aging so. Being the youngest of four siblings, I spent at least a couple of decades just trying to catch up with everybody else. Now I've turned and I'm trying to run back the other way, fast as I can, and it isn't working.

I entered adulthood still lookin' like a kid. So did my husband. People pointed and giggled when we were on our honeymoon and even after we had a couple of kids, people assumed we were just babysitting. Then something happened. I call that something THIRTY.

I remember quite well the day I realized where this aging thing was heading, and I didn't like it one bit. It was February 1994. I was sprawled out on the bed watching the Winter Olympics while Baby #3 did jumping jacks on my bladder and the rhumba on my sciatic nerve. The varicose veins throbbed to the rhythm of it all while there, right there on the television before me, were athletes. Skiers were skiing, and skaters were skating, and bobsledders were bobbing, and all over the place these sleek, fit, attractive athletes were doing all sorts of stuff that young people dream of doing one day when they grow up. And I was just lying there like a hormonally infused Jabba the Hut and it hit me. "I'll never do that." It was the technicolor thought balloon of reality speaking. "I'll never do that." There it was again. I wasn't a kid anymore. I was a 30 year-old mother of soon-to-be three children and my body was plum tired. All that dreaming of "someday" and those somedays had come and gone. Sigh. I was old.

That was over nineteen years ago and now I am even older. Time has marched on, without any orders from me, leaving its tracks all over my body, my mind and my soul. I waved goodbye to my uterus, watched in disbelief as my muscles turned to Jell-O, and sent out an APB when my hormones skipped town in cahoots with my brain cells. I don't like it. Not one bit.

Ours is not a society that embraces aging. It's just not ok to get old. And it is out and out wrong to LOOK old. The ads, oh the ADS. "How does Katie Holmes look so young? Find out her secret!" Katie Holmes looks young because she IS young, you idiots! Even "More," the women's magazine that targets the over-40 crowd, lauded some star who is "62 and still looking great in a bikini." When will it ever stop? No. When will I stop? When will I realize that it is OK to quit working and striving and trying so hard to be something that I haven't been for decades?

God tells us that there are good things in growing old. Even gray hair is considered a crown rather than a rag of shame. But the physical is the least of it. With age comes experience and wisdom and perspective and, strangely enough, humility. With age comes the good stuff. I guess that I don't have to dread that after all.