Getting to Know a Father’s Heart

During my first pregnancy, I learned something surprising: Many daughters have difficult relationships with with their mothers. Having enjoyed a close relationship with my own mom, I needed time to process this. What I’ve since concluded: mothers either drive us crazy or keep us sane, but, regardless, most of us do have some sort of powerful bond with them. 

I suspect this is part of the reason Mother’s Day became an official holiday in 1914, whereas Father’s Day — though unofficially observed much earlier — didn’t make it on to the calendar until 1972. There’s something about that emotional bond — whether it’s “Thank you, Mom, for being my best friend” or “Mom, even though it’s been rough between us, I’ve always known you’re there for me” — that makes us empty the flower shops and fill The Cheesecake Factory to overflowing every year in the beginning of May.

Father’s Day, on the other hand, often stops us in our tracks. We know Dad doesn’t really need another tie, and eating out isn’t that big of a deal for somebody who doesn’t cook,* and golf is expensive, so…how do we show our appreciation? For that matter, who is this guy, anyway?

*I realize this is just one of many sweeping generalizations I’m making here. Truthfully, I don’t know many men who cook regularly if their wives are home. Bear with me.

 

I confess that, for quite a while, I felt closest to my mom. The same is true for many of my friends. Even those who had difficult mother-daughter relationships end up calling mom when adulthood has become overwhelming and they just crave a heart-to-heart talk. We instinctively sense that Mom knows how to listen.

Fatherhood, I begin to suspect, can be very isolating.

Over the past decade or so, I’ve learned a lot about my own dad. Almost everything I’ve learned has always been true; I just didn’t realize that the lines of communication — the emotional connection that made it possible for me to know his heart — had always been there. He just had a different way of showing it.

My mom is a gusher. It’s awesome. She makes me (and everybody who knows her) feel so good about themselves…and she really is being genuine, too.

My dad . . . is not a gusher. He doesn’t waste words, and is very honest, though never cruelly so. In my younger years, what I didn’t see was that, when my dad did offer words of encouragement and admiration, it came from deep down, where he really, truly saw something exceptional and felt moved to express it out loud.

When my dad compliments my writing, it buoys me up for weeks afterward, because he has read extensively and written excellently, and if he thinks I’m good, I must have some business trying to be a writer.

When he describes me as a good musician, I have to believe him, at least partly, because he is one of the most gifted and dedicated musicians I know…so maybe I wasn’t wasting my time as a music teacher.

When he says he’s proud of the person I’ve become…I feel like going on. Because he must see some good in me that I can’t see when I feel like I’ve failed at almost everything. Because of who my father is, words of encouragement from him are among my most precious treasures.

It’s easy to think of Mom as the nurturer, the sympathetic listener, the one whose heart breaks when her kids are hurting. With my mother, all these things hold beautifully true. Something I’ve discovered, though — the thing that blows me away — is this:

My father feels my joy and my sorrow even more deeply than I do.

When I’m in pain, it hurts my dad, and I know he fervently lifts me up in prayer with more passion and persistence than I do. When I rejoice, he rejoices along with me, thanking God that his girl is happy. I know that whatever I confide to him, he will tuck away in his heart and guard carefully.

Not everybody is fortunate enough to have a father who so wonderfully reflects God’s love for us. Some are deprived of even having a father who is present. As long as the world is fallen, broken relationships will exist, and it will be harder for many to believe that God really loves them.

He does, though, and a father who truly loves God with all his heart will embody that love, giving his children a glimpse of what God’s love looks like.

I am so thankful that I have a dad like that.

 

**********

 

Advertisements

Wondrous Love: Being a Child of God

2015-02-24 19.51.23

One of my favorite pasttimes is eavesdropping on my children.

Of course, opportunities to do so arise rarely. I’m usually in close contact with my kids, and when I’m not, it’s because I’m trying to fend them off so I can accomplish something productive (or eat chocolate in secret). Every so often, though, I manage to observe them undetected. I peek through the windows of their Sunday School rooms; listen outside the door while they’re playing nicely together at home (did I mention that this happens rarely?); or sneak into their bedrooms after dark to marvel, once again, at how beautiful they are when they sleep.

On one of these occasions, as I gazed intently at my precious little girl, it suddenly hit me: They really have no idea how much I love them. 

In fact, they probably suspect, sometimes, that I don’t love them. Frankly, it’s not always easy. They often resent my interference with their goals; they take much more than they give; when I do something special with them, they complain when it’s over instead of thanking me for a fun time; and, on the whole, they don’t truly believe that I have their best interests in mind.

None of this, however, alters the fact that I am head over heels for these baffling little creatures. Why? Sure, they’re cute — and sometimes they’re fun — but factoring in both the good and the bad, I can’t say they’ve earned it. The truth is: I love them because they are mine.

Only as adults will they truly begin to grasp this. I know, because the same is true for me. Although young adulthood taught me to appreciate my parents more and more, I had yet to recognize the depth and self-sacrificial nature of their love for me…to realize that this love didn’t reflect how lovable and charming I was, but how faithful and selfless they were.

Who else displays this depth of devotion — this boundless love, undeserved yet freely bestowed? Only one Person — and I, like a child, am not only undeserving of His love, but am wholly incapable of grasping its immensity. When I think on the vast difference between my children’s love and mine, it stuns me to consider the immeasurably greater difference between my love and God’s.

psalm-103

In truth, my confidence in God’s love sometimes wavers. I occasionally question His plans. I act out of selfishness and pride instead of gratitude and trust. In fact — let me be perfectly honest — I can be a real ingrate. And yet He loves me with an everlasting love (Jer. 31:3), not because of my character…but because of His. This assurance quells my fears and puts my doubts to rest…and the longer I know Him, the more deeply I experience and believe in His love for me.

Whether you have children or not…whether your relationship with your own parents brings joy or frustration…you can be assured that our Father’s love is perfect. He is the Parent in whose image every parent was created; we are the children who bear that same image, and with whom He desires an intimate relationship…whom He pursues passionately, even when, like the prodigal son, we stray far from home in search of our own foolish desires. As time passes, I marvel more and more at the awesome truth expressed in 1 John 3:1:

“Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God!”

 

Falling Into Grace: or, Why Parents Don’t Have to be Perfect

You may have heard of the “Mommy Wars.”

Perhaps some single people in the world of professional sports, or international politics, or Wall Street, are so deeply embroiled in their careers that only faint echoes of this term have ever reached their ears. Maybe a few tribal peoples residing deep in the remote jungles of Africa are unaware of its existence. For most of us, though — even those of us fortunate enough to be surrounded by non-judgmental, non-competitive mom friends — the Mommy Wars are as familiar as the Golden Arches or “Let it Go.”

Many of us recoil at the phrase — yet, if we dare to brave any Internet forum or Facebook comment section related to parenting, we quickly discover that a frighteningly large percentage of mothers are eager to join the fray.

Obviously, as depicted touchingly (or perhaps nauseatingly – you decide) in a recent video that flooded Facebook for days, even the most militant mothers (and fathers, by the way) really just want the best for their children. Co-sleep or cry it out? Stay at home or maintain a career? Two kids or seven? Homeschool or public school? Parents weigh the various options, sometimes agonizing over them, sometimes adjusting them, and ultimately making their choices with the belief that these choices will best serve the young humans in their care.

Why all the hostility, then? If we really believe in every parent’s good intentions, whence comes the nastiness that characterizes most conversations on parenting issues ranging from the monumental to the miniscule?

Well…probably a number of things. I sense, however, that the intensity of the disagreements — the terrier-like tenacity that leads total strangers to argue online for hours with a devotion they probably never showed when assigned to write persuasive papers in college — springs from the belief that our parenting choices will settle the fate of our children irrevocably. In our hands, we hold our children’s destiny…or…their DOOM.

Now, I freely admit that I have views of my own. Strong views, in several instances. I believe that our parenting choices make a difference, and I want to do the best I can with the children God has entrusted to me.

However

I am only human. You are only human. Think about this: If we control our children’s fates, and our well-intentioned choices are the sole determinants of whether or not they will grow into well-adjusted and successful adults…is there any hope at all?

Maybe you have enough confidence in your abilities, your research, and your problem-solving skills to answer that question with a “yes.” If you’re like every mom I’ve ever talked to, though, you probably second-guess yourself occasionally. You probably have bad days. And maybe…just maybe…you’re hoping for some grace to overcome those areas in which you’re not sure of being all you wish you could be.

In general, I consider myself ill-equipped to dole out parenting tips, and therefore avoid doing so. However, seven years of parenting have taught me to have absolute confidence in one thing…and I want to share it with you. God’s grace means you don’t have to be perfect.

That’s right. Even if somehow, against all odds, you do everything exactly wrong (whatever that even means), God is bigger than our failures. In fact, our failures are often where we see Him most clearly, if we have the courage to look beyond ourselves…beyond our worries…beyond our stubborn self-reliance…to see the God who tells us, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” He loves our children even more than we do, and is “able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think” regarding His precious creations.

Kind of scary, isn’t it? To acknowledge that we might not have complete control over how our children will turn out? I won’t deny that, in my pride, I sometimes like to imagine that I can craft my kids to be “just right” if only I try hard enough. That is not, however, the message of the Gospel — for ourselves, for our children, or for other people’s children.

Whenever I move past my insistence that my way is the only way…and my sinful tendency to look askance at parents whose decisions don’t line up with my ideals…I rejoice that ultimately, my kids (and everybody else’s kids) are in much more capable hands than my own. That none of my failures are beyond the reach of God’s grace. That I am not really in control after all. And that, my friends, is a beautiful thing.

Fish Story

My son was four years old when he first popped The Question.

“Mama, why don’t we have a puppy or a kitten at our house?”

As far as I can recall, my response went something like this: “Well, some people do and some people don’t. Do you like puppies and kittens?” (“Yes.”) “Well, that would be fun someday, wouldn’t it? Hey, do you want another cookie?”

And so the crisis was momentarily (and deftly) averted. In the intervening years, when the topic has arisen again, I’ve handled it pretty much the same way. Eventually, though, I will need more heavy-duty techniques than indulge-and-distract, and frankly, I’m not sure I have what it takes.

Intellectually, I see why a pet is probably a bad idea for our family. If, however, my Better Half suddenly decided that our children required the psychological benefits of a furry companion, and the only thing left to do was Convince Mama, doing so would take about as much effort as convincing me to go get a pedicure and then spend the rest of the day reading and drinking lattes at Barnes & Noble.

But that’s not going to happen. If a pet ever joins our household, it will be a Momentous Event, preceded by wars, rumors of wars, and extensive deliberation, and ultimately heralded with much fanfare. Or so I’ve always assumed.

Sometimes, though, life just sneaks up on you.

One bright Saturday in September, I was on my own with the kids. After an afternoon of hayrides, games, and face-painting at a church member’s farm, I made a last-minute decision to check out the Homecoming festivities at my daughter’s preschool. Not because it would be in any way meaningful to my children, but because I’d heard there would be Kids’ Activities, and I wanted to provide enough tactile and body-kinesthetic experiences to justify turning on the Wii as soon as we got home.

So. Weaving our way through a throng of raucous high-schoolers, we located the activities: Beanbag Toss, Sand Art, Squirt the Ping-Pong Ball, Ring Toss, and so on, with all the games promising prizes for the winners. The prize for the Ring Toss? A fish.

If you have children, know any children, or ever were a child, you’ve already guessed that one of my children headed for the Ring Toss the moment he spied the stacks of depressed Wal-Mart-issued fish circling in their clear plastic off-brand homes with lids already beginning to crack. Inwardly, I panicked, having already noted the high-schoolers’ leniency in letting my munchkins stand MUCH closer to their targets than technically allowed by standard Beanbag Toss regulations. Fortunately, the student supervising the Ring Toss made sure my son stood behind the masking tape, and three eagerly-tossed rings landed on the floor in rapid succession.

“Oh, well! Good try, honey!” I told him cheerfully, turning hurriedly to find a safer activity. But then…then a young bystander decided to do her Random Act of Kindness for the day.

“You can have my fish, if you’d like,” said a sweet little girl, who was probably about nine but whose face I will never remember because it all happened so quickly and because it’s hard to observe your surroundings when you’re already consumed by an internal conflict that is making your head explode. Years’ worth of deliberation and debate passed through my mind in nanoseconds.

Wait, are we ready for a pet? I’m not sure we can handle the responsibility. Well, it is just a fish, and they’re really just decorations, anyway, they’re not actually pets. Besides, these carnival fish always die within twenty-four hours anyway, right? Shoot, what if it DOES die and he’s already gotten attached to it? I wonder if we should try to keep it alive. Would he care? If it lives, do we need to buy friends for it? And those neon rocks that go on the bottom of a fishbowl? I wonder if any of the kids’ toys would make good fishbowl decor. He might not mind if it dies – it’s not like he can pet it or anything.

“Aw, that’s very nice of you! Thank you very much!” I said aloud, calmly accepting the scrawny grey fish as if I did this every weekend and, in fact, already owned a thirty-gallon aquarium filled with happy carnival fish who would be delighted to welcome a new friend. And thus, without pomp or circumstance, our household welcomed its First Pet.

If I had any hope that the fish’s existence would be as inauspicious as his adoption, my son quickly demolished them. “I love Fisho!” he declared as soon as we found an empty surface for its home. From then on, checking in on the fish became an important component of my son’s daily schedule. Every hour, he would rush into his room to gaze at his new charge, comment on its appearance (“Look at how his eyes stick out! He’s kind of ugly, but in a cute way, isn’t he?”), and ask to feed it. (“Honey, some of his last meal is still floating around. Let’s give him a break, okay?”) I buried my hopes for the fish’s rapid demise, and instead braced myself for the impending onslaught of fish-related purchases…but twenty-six hours after joining us, as unceremoniously as he had entered our world, Fisho exited it.

“Look, Mama!” called my daughter, who had come to inspect the fish while her brother was out playing with a friend. “He’s sleeping!”

Before I’d even looked for myself, I knew what I was about to see. Fisho, hovering motionless near the bottom of his abode, eyes bulging and sightless, was undeniably and reliably dead. Which my daughter, once she believed me, handled so well that I wondered if she had contributed to the situation. Only one obvious question now remained: Had my son’s professed love for Fisho grown deep enough that this loss would traumatize him for years? The suspense, fortunately, was short-lived.

Barreling through the front door, my son headed straightaway for his room. Peering closely at the fish, he immediately exclaimed, “Hey, Mama – he’s sleeping!”

I chose a matter-of-fact approach. “Actually, honey, I don’t think he’s sleeping.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean…it looks like our fish didn’t make it.”

“You mean he’s dead? How do you know?”

“Well, he’s not moving. See how, even if I jiggle his container, he just lies there?”

Wide-eyed, my son jostled the container…and giggled. “Look, now he’s moving!” More jostling, less tentatively this time. “Now he’s really moving!” And with that, delighted giggles overcame him.

When his laughter subsided, I took advantage of the levity. “Do you know how to get rid of dead fish?”

“Throw them in the trash?”

“Actually, that would stink up the bathroom. So you know what? We flush them.”

Wide eyes once more. “In the TOILET?” Another giggling fit ensued. “It’ll be like somebody POOPED a fish!”

And with that, we concluded our First Pet Adventure. Maybe we’re ready for a puppy after all.

Today is the Best Day of the Rest of Your Life

I’m not sure when it started happening, but I remember when I recognized a pattern. An adult acquaintance asked me how things were going in college, and I responded honestly. Swamped with papers, sweating through practice hours, running to and fro for rehearsals and concerts, and dealing with personal issues, I was seriously overwhelmed.

“Well,” she said, “try to enjoy it. These are the best years of your life.”

Outwardly, I conceded that, yes, college did present many opportunities that one might not have again, and that I was indeed actually thoroughly enjoying it. Inwardly, though, I confess to being much less agreeable. Am I a complete wuss for being stressed by all these apparently insignificant things? I thought. If life will only continue to get worse from this moment, I sure hope I don’t even make it to my sixties. But, at that moment, I saw the pattern. Simply put: At every stage of life, from the day you learn to hold a conversation, people will hasten to tell you that things will never be better than they are right now. Not all people – but just enough.

It even happens to kids. “You don’t know how good you have it!” Now, in some cases, this statement may be necessary…when, for instance, a kid complains that he doesn’t get enough candy, or that his friends have more video games than he does. Deal with it, kid. People are starving in Ethiopia. Sometimes, though, kids hear those same words when they’ve been shunned by a friend…picked last for the team…or simply frustrated by being unable to accomplish a task, whether it’s putting pants on the right way or building a block tower that won’t fall down. “Oh, honey, it’ll be okay,” they’re told. “Someday you’ll look back on this and wonder why it upset you so much. Life will be MUCH harder when you’re an adult.”

The trend continues as we mature. “You think high school is hard? Wait until college!” “You think college is hard? Wait until you have a job!” And then…you become a parent. And oh, that “you-just-wait” comment attacks you from all sides.

“Oh-ho-ho, look how cute and pleasant your baby is right now. Enjoy this time while she can’t talk, because as soon as she can, it’ll be nothing but backtalk until she goes to school!”

“You think three-year-olds are difficult? When they’re teenagers, you’ll want to ship ’em off to Ethiopia! And they aren’t even cute by that time!”

Here’s the thing: on a certain level, I get it. Eventually, most children figure out how to get their pants on correctly, and seriously, it’s just pants, not nuclear medicine. HOWEVER…it’s not just about pants. It’s about wanting to do something well, and feeling disheartened by repeated unsuccessful attempts…and don’t we all struggle with that? Whether you’re four or forty, it’s discouraging to feel like you can’t do something right. And does anything hurt more than standing on the field in gym class for what seems like an eternity until the team captain reluctantly calls you over because there was nobody left to pick?

Well…on one hand, yes. Since childhood, I’ve been experienced bigger and more lasting hurts than those inflicted in gym class. At those moments, though, my little elementary-school heart ached as much as it could possibly ache, and my capacity for feeling unwanted and inadequate was stretched to its limits. If my parents had told me, when I poured out my heart to them later on, that my problems were small and I was overreacting, those feelings of inadequacy and loneliness would have only intensified. I would have felt stupid for even having them. Moreover, I would have hesitated to share anything with them in the future, because I’d always have been wondering if I was just being childish and oversensitive. One of my favorite quotes concerning parenting addresses this concept:

“Listen earnestly to anything [your children] want to tell you, no matter what. If you don’t listen eagerly to the little stuff when they are little, they won’t tell you the big stuff when they are big, because to them all of it has always been big stuff.” ~Catherine M. Wallace

In general, although I have occasionally heard children’s problems minimized by their elders, I think adults recognize this truth. The older we get, though, the more likely we are to hear that our current struggles are, in light of future events, not worth getting worked up about. I’m not sure why, and I think that analyzing it would require a whole other blog post; however, I will venture to propose that people often don’t stop to remember what it was like to be in the shoes of those younger than themselves.

When I was in college, it was harder than anything I’d done yet. Sure, I had some wonderful experiences, and loved what I was studying, but it was HARD. There was always something I needed to be doing, and I felt restless any time I was relaxing, because I knew I’d soon need to get back to practicing, get started on a paper, or study for an exam.

When I was teaching, it was harder than anything I’d done yet. I was responsible for more than just getting good grades; I was responsible for other people’s kids. I was earning a paycheck, I was in front of people constantly, and I couldn’t just slack off.

When I became a mother…my life turned upside down. I had never felt so exhausted, unsure of myself, and intensely desirous of doing things just right.

So yes, in a way, life’s challenges grow as we do…but here’s the key: we grow in our ability to handle those challenges. I’m not sure if college was much harder for me at age twenty than high school was for me at sixteen…and if it was, so what? High school prepared me for college. College prepared me for teaching. Parenting children is preparing me for parenting teenagers.

We are called to bear one another’s burdens, not to scoff at others’ burdens because ours are bigger. If you’re teaching right now, I might not offer to write your lesson plans for you, but I will listen as you tell me it’s been a rough semester. I will agree that teaching was, and is, incredibly demanding. And when my kids reach their teens, and a young mother confides to me that she’s barely making it from one day to the next with her little ones, I hope I will still know better than to offer some dismissive comment about how wonderful those years are compared with my current teenage-parent angst.

If I don’t, you can print out this blog post and hit me over the head with it. And that’s a promise.

Going Easy on Myself…For the Kids

These days, it’s easier than ever for a mom to feel inadequate. Most of us, of course, can’t resist that age-old temptation to compare ourselves with everybody we know…which inevitably leads to the conclusion that we are utterly inferior to All Of Them. This tendency is compounded by such modern atrocities as the Mommy Wars – an embarrassment to our generation – and Pinterest, whose soul-crushing cuteness can reduce even a Supermom to tears.

Fortunately, my friends and neighbors are too classy to engage in the Mommy Wars, so the only taste I’ve had comes from the times I’ve been stupid enough to visit the wretched hives of scum and villainy known as Internet forums and blog comment sections. Furthermore, I know myself well enough to stay on Pinterest no longer than the amount of time it takes me to “pin” a recipe I found elsewhere. As for the comparison thing…well, I can’t claim complete innocence. I’m working on it.

Even if I were to conquer all those demons, though – if I could look at my high-achieving mommy friends and feel nothing but admiration and delight at the wonderful things they do to raise their kids – I would still have myself to deal with. And I don’t know about you, but I can be a real bear. In my head, I have some pretty well-defined ideas of how my children should turn out…and the extent to which I reach my ideals tends to govern my sense of success or failure as a mother.

First and foremost, of course, I want my children to love Jesus and know that He loves them. Beyond that, though, I really think it’s important that they develop a deep love for books. And while I’m certainly not the Tiger Mom type, I’d like them each to become proficient on at least one instrument. It teaches discipline, beautifies life, and brings so much joy to oneself and others. Both of these goals would benefit, obviously, from a love for learning and a desire to achieve. Not to the exclusion of outside interests, of course; they should also have a healthy love of the outdoors, whether they experience it through biking, camping, running, or reading in a hammock. Regardless, they should definitely prefer being outside to doing anything that involves looking at a screen. Heaven forfend.

As you may have guessed, our reality doesn’t match my ideals. Although my children both enjoy reading, it’s not the first activity they request when they’re bored, and my son has frankly informed me more than once that he prefers movies. As for my musical dreams…well, having been raised as a musician, by musicians, I know how much practice goes into excelling on any instrument. When I imagine the battles that would ensue if I tried to instill good practice habits into my strong-willed, attention-span-of-a-squirrel six-year-old, my legs get wobbly and my breathing becomes labored and I’m tempted to issue an edict that all instruments be hidden from sight for twelve years, kind of like the spinning wheels in Sleeping Beauty. So, needless to say, we haven’t touched that one. As for my Earth Mother dreams: I’m happy to say that, when we go hiking, or haul our bikes to a trail somewhere, we usually have fun together (especially if I’ve brought snacks). If we’re just playing in our yard, however, eventually one of them is bound to say, “I’m bored. Can we go inside and play with toys?”…or “play Wii?” THE HORROR.

Reflecting on the disparity between my ideals and the reality, I can easily become discouraged. If I were doing things right, we’d be making discernible progress toward those goals; conversely, my inability to make them happen indicates personal failure. Or so I’ve allowed myself to think for too long. As God has worked in my heart, through time spent in prayer and Bible reading, and through conversations with people older and wiser than myself, I’ve slowly come to understand and accept several truths:

1. At the tender ages of six and four, my children are way too young to have their fates decided. Though I know them pretty well, I can’t possibly predict – with any accuracy – what they’ll be like as adults. So I seriously need to chill.

2. When I look at what has and hasn’t happened in my children’s lives so far, taking full responsibility for every perceived lack, I give myself a power I don’t possess. Though I can (and should) influence them, teach them, and often correct them, I didn’t create them. God designed each of them with unique personalities, gifts, strengths and weaknesses, and will work in their lives far beyond anything I can do.

3. As long as I think of these not-yet-accomplished goals as personal shortcomings, I am doing a disservice to myself…and to my children.

For some time now, I’ve understood the truth of Point Number One (though I must constantly nag myself to remember it). As for Number Two, I’ve accepted, at least intellectually, that I have less control than I’d like to think. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not advocating a “kids-will-be-kids” approach that dispenses with all discipline, allows the children to run the household, and avoids ever making them undertake anything they deem unpleasant. I’m simply saying that I did not, and cannot, shape their personalities, their passions, or their gifts. They are individuals, each one composed of a dash of myself, a dash of my husband, and a generous dose of the things that make them unique.

Which brings us to Number Three. It should go without saying, but I put far too much pressure on myself when I conclude that I’ve failed simply because of some unattained ideals my brain has randomly generated. Moreover – and this is what really gives me pause – my harsh critiques of myself will, in one way or another, inevitably extend to my children.

My son is great at building things. He excels at problem-solving, knows the rules of Chess better than I do, and considers Scrabble Junior beneath him, preferring instead to play the “real” version. My daughter has an amazing memory, fears nothing, and is incredibly agile. (This blows my mind, as I routinely bump into doorframes, and hit my head on the table almost every time I pick up a Lego).

If my son grows up to be an engineer, and ends up spending most of his time inside being smart and computery, will he know that I’m proud of him? Or will he sense that I always wished, deep down, that he would be an English professor who went camping every weekend? If my daughter becomes a ballet dancer, will she know that, even though I admire her and am in awe of her grace, I thought she could have been a great violinist who spent her free time as a freelance writer? When I allow dissatisfaction to hold sway as long as my expectations remain unmet, am I truly being thankful for the wonderful children God has given me the privilege of raising? Or am I putting my desires ahead of His, thinking that only the preconceived path I’ve envisioned will allow them to glorify Him?

When I answer all these questions honestly…it’s a bit humbling to realize how self-absorbed I can be. Unimaginative, even. Over and beyond that, though, I feel immense relief. I don’t have to write the perfect script that will guarantee careers of intellectual and artistic excellence. In fact, I shouldn’t. So, briefly, here’s what I want for my children: I want them to have character. I want them to be teachable, and to make the best of the gifts they’ve received. Most of all, I want them to know that Jesus loves them…and so do I. No matter what they do when they grow up.

Traveling With Children, Part 12: Things I’ve Learned

Unless you’re new to this blog, you know that the title of this entry is nonsense. After all, I’ve written four entries to date, and not one of them has addressed the topic of traveling with children. Have no fear: you’re not crazy. The simple explanation is that, in my head, I have composed numerous essays on this subject over the past six years; in fact, this might be more like Part Twenty.

Our children, as it happens, have traveled extensively. I don’t mention this to compete with anybody; some families certainly travel more than we do, and I’m cool with that. And I certainly don’t intend to brag; the bragworthiness of having well-traveled kids is dubious at best. We just have a husband and father who has racked up enough frequent flyer miles and hotel points – and made enough friends in other states – to vacation all over the place, and sometimes to let us tag along on his business trips. This, in addition to visits with out-of-town family members, means that packing for a trip has become as natural, for me, as going to the grocery store.

My first few mental essays on this topic were decidedly dark; cautionary tales that, if made available for others’ consumption, would have driven new parents to schedule staycations for the next eighteen years, and to call their extended families announcing that Thanksgiving and Christmas would take place at their homes until their babies were in college. Vomit, diaper disasters, kid-hating fellow passengers, puke, ear infections, acute sleep deprivation, barf, and endless hours of listening to the tortured screams of a child begging to be released from the carseat, characterized our first few years of car and airplane travel. Before 2007, I loved traveling; by the end of 2007, I was sure I would hate it forever.

Fortunately, I was wrong. In recent years, our children (now six and four) have developed into much more tolerable travel companions, and I no longer dread every night away from home. Still – big news flash here – it is not the same as it was Before Children. Hence, I present to you, in the hopes that it will aid you in your own vacation plans someday, my most recent iteration of Things I’ve Learned.

1. Bringing The Kitchen Sink
I used to pride myself on packing light. As with every other aspect of my life, motherhood has taught me humility in this area. I suppose that’s a good thing. Regardless, the fact is that kids need more than a few outfits and your basic toothbrush/underwear/pajamas trifecta. Without toys, books, and/or games for the hotel room downtime, the entertainment will be either YOU…or SpongeBob. Oh, and one outfit per day? Not gonna cut it. Somebody is guaranteed to fall in the mud, have a spaghetti accident, or throw up at some point during the trip…more than once. Bring plenty of clothing.

(P.S. If you’re visiting someone’s home – especially if that someone has kids or grandkids – these issues are significantly less pressing. They will most likely have toys and – better yet – a washer and dryer that won’t require you to convert the remainder of your vacation budget into quarters. Because of this, I actually get excited about doing laundry when we’re traveling).

2. Bladder Shrinkage
At home, your children might be capable of drinking 32 ounces of apple juice and then playing Wii for six hours straight without a trip to the potty, but the moment you load the last suitcase into your car, their bladders will begin shrinking. You will make friends with the airport toilets, the airplane toilets, and every soggy, decaying rest stop toilet on the interstate. Even if they “went” before you left. Once you’ve arrived at your destination, they will schedule their *ahem* longest potty visits for mealtimes, usually at the moment when your waiter has brought the food to your table. Or for when they’re dripping wet, covered in sand, and wearing a one-piece bathing suit.

There is nothing you can do about this. Except to prepare. Carry wipes at all times, and learn to protect your children from the Automatic Flush Toilets of Death. (Hint: cover the sensor).

3. Shifting Your Paradigm
You don’t need me to tell you that “vacationing” with kids will be less relaxing than when there were just two of you. Aside from the fact that parenting is hard work, there’s also the fact that kids don’t know how to relax. They don’t see the point.

This used to depress me, but as my kids have gotten older, I’ve realized that they DO know how to have fun. We are currently wrapping up a vacation in Puerto Rico, and every day the beach and poolside are strewn with twentysomethings wearing sexy bathing suits, languidly working on their sexy tans, so they can don their sexy cocktail dresses in the evenings and drink, dance, and gamble until they pass out. This description has never fit me, which I guess is an advantage, but honestly, it’s much more FUN to race up and down the waterslide dozens of times a day, to play Connect Four and table soccer in the shade, and to splash in the waves while my kids scream with delight. (They really do scream).

Sure, I admit to feeling a trifle envious of the vacationers relaxing by the water with a good book, or running on the beach every morning, but it’s about adjusting your expectations. Some day, I might be able to do that again; meanwhile, it’s amazing to remember how I used to smile as I’d watch adorable children giggling and playing on the beach with their families…and to realize that I now have adorable children of my own.

4. What Happens in Vegas
Here’s something I took a long time to understand: a week or so of bad habits won’t ruin your children for life. Having disparaged SpongeBob in Item One, let me now say this: you can buy back some relaxation time if you’re willing to let your children chill with some mindless TV. They’re most likely getting an abundance of fresh air and exercise, forming wonderful memories, and strengthening family relationships, and some extra screen time won’t destroy that. Meanwhile – and here’s the perk for you – this is a perfect time for you to grab a book, some knitting, or your favorite gadget, and head for the balcony. (Or a quiet corner of the room). Everybody will be happy, you will feel at least a little bit like you’re on a real vacation, and when the trip ends, you can reteach the good habits you’ve worked so hard on at home. (Sounds easier said than done, but it’s not as hard as you might expect).

5. Pedicure Damage
Because I knew my feet would be exposed all week, I gave myself a pedicure before we left. Three coats of sparkly fuschia nail polish seemed sufficient, and I didn’t pack the bottle because of my aforementioned penchant for packing light. It turns out that extensive swimming and playing in the sand chips away nail color much more efficiently than my 99-cent nail polish remover. So take a lesson from me and pack the 0.5-ounce bottle of nail polish…just in case.

I’m not sure how to relate that to traveling with children. Consider it a bonus tip.

Our next trip isn’t planned yet, but it can’t be far off. When it happens, I expect we will all learn new things, because it changes a little bit every time. Meanwhile, happy travels. Watch out for those automatic-flush toilets.