Teaching me to mother

Lizard,

205302_503087736842_9842_nThank you for breaking me in back when I turned 22. There was nothing Taylor Swift about it. Your dad and I tied the knot three weeks after I graduated from college and three weeks after my birthday, and I frantically searched for employment while serving as your stepmom. I felt like I was playing house sometimes, the way my sisters and I played Barbies as kids. Ken and Barbie smooch and hug and ride in the Barbie convertible, and then they get married, and they have a baby, and then what?

I learned the then what from you. No matter what obstacles your dad and I faced in our marriage, I always enjoyed being your stepmom. I loved taking you grocery shopping when you were five years old and answering your bazillion questions about produce and spaghetti and magazines. I obtained a great repertoire of bumblebee, elephant, and duck songs because of you. I got a big kick out of playing Tooth Fairy and helping you learn how to do backbends and make macaroni and cheese and use the washing machine and dryer. I remember the summer after second grade when I realized you lacked some important skills, and I decided to make it my mission to teach you to become more self-sufficient. You were so open to learning new things. I remember you telling your mom and Meme and Papaw about every new accomplishment over the phone, beaming with pride from ear to ear.

262960_519156345222_5013781_nYour willingness to learn never waned. We had The Talk in bits and pieces beginning at age five. I was always candid with you, telling you enough to satisfy your curiosity but not enough to bore you to tears. That strategy seemed to work. I also promised to tell you the truth no matter what, and I never wavered on that promise, and I still haven’t, even though we both know there have been some times when it would have been easier and softer if I’d lied. Because of your willingness to learn, and my willingness to be honest, we’ve made a pretty good team.

Fast forward to 2015. You’re finishing up your sophomore year of college, and I teach students the exact same age as you, my Lizard. Of course, I also teach non-traditional students, too.

Talk about having my life flash before my eyes at work every single day.

I see you in so many of my students. Here are a few examples.

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Hannah and Joey 

There’s Hannah, a beautiful spirit who is seriously perpetual sunshine to everyone who knows her. She reminds me of how I feel around you from the first minute you pull into my driveway until the minute you drive away.

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Nathan

There’s Nathan, a jokester on the outside with a serious interior he tries to disguise from his classmates most of the time—sound like anyone you know? This guy even donned a tutu once during a demonstration speech to help a fellow student out. I have proof of this beautiful moment :). I only taught him for one semester, but he was certainly one of the most memorable students I’ve ever taught.

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With LCreighton and Charmstrong

There are Charmstrong and Lcreighton, two little cuties I came to know outside of class before they became my students. They are both just adorbs (are you proud of me for using that term, Liz?) and often send me pictures of Edna Mode of The Incredibles, who they believe I emulate, in the middle of my lectures. They have filled a little bit of the Lizard void in my heart and life by walking with me to class and laughing with me and reminding me that I’m not THAT old.

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Crystal

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Sheila

There’s Crystal, who I have known for decades and had the pleasure to teach last fall. She has faced more than her share of obstacles but has chosen to become better, not bitter.

There’s Sheila, a non-traditional student who loves her family more than anything. She is also a total survivor and fighter. She has earned her spot in my heart and has proven herself to be hard-working and diligent even when it would have been easier to drop out of school. These are qualities I see in you, too, Liz.

11149462_10153220074068826_6559028102695630203_nAnd then there’s Lauren, who lost her lifelong love this semester. She is now raising their baby alone and is persevering against all odds. She’ll graduate in two days with honors. She will not allow others’ choices and tragedies to dictate the direction of her life.

And this, my Lizard, is what I hope for you, too.

With all that you have taught me about being a teacher, Liz, and with all that my students continually teach me about being a mom, I’m not sure why I’m being paid to teach. The least I can do is pour my very best self into my teaching, and offer my very best self to Maggie every day as her mom.

Happy Mother’s Day, Liz, to you and to all my babies.

Dear Maggie

*During the month of November, I like to write letters–and feature guest writers who write letters–to thank people and to express gratitude. Since my entire blog centers on gratitude, this letter writing project during November is just another way to express my gratitude. The act of living in gratitude is something I practice as part of my lifestyle already, but it never hurts to kick it up a notch.*

Dear Maggie,

IMG_4819It seems appropriate that I’m writing this letter to you minutes after spending a painful hour putting you to bed tonight. I changed your diaper twice at your request, fed you grapes in your high chair, opened a miniature wheel of Babybel cheese (which you then refused to touch), put said wheel of cheese into a baggie for lunch tomorrow, and prompted you to take sips of milk. I allowed you to sit on your little potty (fully clothed) simply because I don’t want to discourage you from potty training, but I can’t help but wonder if you have learned that it’s a great way to distract me from putting you to bed. I even paused to scribble a red heart for you because I cannot resist your little voice when you hand me a crayon and beg for hearts. 

You clearly have mine.

After I finally carried you into your room and began singing quiet songs to you, songs of God’s love for you and my love for you, your little body began to relax. You requested a book. Be still, my beating heart. I turned on the white milk glass lamp and let you stand atop the dresser, searching for the perfect book to take to bed. This process always takes longer than anticipated, but who am I to question another girl’s taste in literature?

Photo by Say Cheese Photography

Photo by Say Cheese Photography

Before I put your tiny frame into the crib, you wrapped your arms around me and nestled your head into my chest tonight and let me sing a little longer than usual. You always demand “hugs” and constantly repeat “I love you” when we put you to bed, but you could never demand too much affection from me; I will always want to give back to you tenfold.

As I sat down to write this letter to you, I realized that I was already completely exhausted and that my best writing would not be done tonight. If I wanted to produce a brilliant letter, something captivating for the world to read, I’d better wait until tomorrow after sleep, coffee, and sinus medication had done their jobs.

But I decided to write this letter to you anyway—just as I am, wearing pajamas, looking wretched, and feeling similar. Thirty minutes ago, before you fell asleep, you held me and told me you loved me, just as I am.

And that has been the greatest gift you have given me, Maggie—the ability to become even more of who God made me to be, to let go of all of my plans, to be right where my hands are with you every single day, and to be just who I am.

Thank you, Maggie.

Mama loves you.

 

For her curls

As I gear up to go back to work full-time this fall, transitioning from an adjunct instructor to a full-time English instructor, I find myself fluctuating between excitement and eager anticipation and anxiety and grief as I let go of this period of my life–the stay-at-home mom phase. No longer will Maggie’s cute babbling on the baby monitor serve as my alarm clock. One month from now, I’ll entrust my child to babysitters three days a week and rely on them to fill me in on the brightest moments of the day, to keep me posted on her milestones and her tantrums and her patterns of behavior. Soon Maggie and I will both have to adjust to a new schedule, a new routine, and a new balance of people in our lives.

With my fellow faculty members on the day I got the news that I'd been selected for the full-time position

With my fellow faculty members on the day I got the news that I’d been selected for the full-time position

Don’t get me wrong–I’m beyond thankful for my new job. If you missed my post about my new job, reading that will certainly clarify any confusion about my feelings about that. For years, I didn’t even think I’d ever have the opportunity to go to graduate school; a few years ago, my husband (boyfriend at the time) encouraged me to pursue my passion for English language and literature, regardless of the practicality of it all… talk about winning me over! I enrolled in a Master’s program a few weeks later, and I’ve never regretted that decision. I feel that I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing with my life right now;  it’s a wonderful feeling, and a great way to serve God and other people.

Still, I’m a mom, and I’m a mom who wears her heart on her sleeve sometimes. I’ll be the first to admit that it took me an entire year’s worth of prayer and meditation before I felt absolute peace about the decision to go back to work full-time at this point in my daughter’s life. But it does feel like the right time. If there’s anything God has repeatedly taught me, through practical experience, it’s that He is always right on time (if I yield to His will and don’t push and shove and insist on my own). There’s something easy and beautiful about letting God make things happen.

I would not trade the past 20 months of time I’ve spent at home with my daughter for anything; no amount of money and no thrill or prestige would entice me to reconsider how I’ve spent this period of time.

IMG_3763This morning Maggie and I took a walk down our quiet country road, admiring the bright morning sun reflecting off the surface of nearly every dew-covered leaf in the woods. We played with bubbles in the backyard. Every time Maggie popped a bubble, she excitedly exclaimed, “I gots!” Maggie played in her sandbox, silently scooping and shoveling sand into her little bucket over and over again, occasionally turning to glance at me sitting nearby, maybe to ensure that I was still watching her. The light reflected off her wild auburn curls. I found myself watching nothing but her hair, mesmerized by the light in her curls, the sun spinning around and twisting every time she turned and picked up her scoop and set it down again.

What is that worth, I wondered. What is this moment worth to me?

Everything. There’s nothing anyone could pay me to trade me for this moment, and nothing I’d exchange for the life I have lived with my daughter for the past 20 months.

I know that I haven’t wasted my time because I have chosen to be where my hands are; when I make that choice, I’m never wasting my time.

 

Day 25: Dear Need

Day 25 in the Dear Gratitude project is submitted by yours truly :).

Dear Need,

I first remember meeting you, Need, when my father fell from his heroic platform in my mind. Grappling with drug addiction, he stood in our living room in Augusta, Kansas, in 1984, and admitted that he had fallen for Caroline. I remember my mom crying, scorching, angry tears spilling over, commanding him to explain himself to his four daughters. He tried to. And then he left.

And I didn’t shed a tear, although I was surrounded by four emotionally distraught females.

My dad, circa 1984, who I've grown to love again

My dad, circa 1984, who I’ve grown to love again

I didn’t know then how much I needed a daddy and how much the lack of having one would alter my path in life. I didn’t know that, as Naomi Shihab Nye claims in her poem The Traveling Onion, “It is right that tears fall for something small and forgotten.” I didn’t know these things, but I would learn them later. Because of you, Need, I spent years trying to replace my dad with insufficient substitutes. I can’t say that I’m proud of that, but I know that you, Need, are often something I can’t even detect in myself—but God can. Thanks to you, Need, I eventually found a Father. Thank you, Need, for leading me to create a path of destruction uglier and more harmful than the mess left behind in Wichita after a tornado. Seeing myself realistically finally led me to accept and love my dad again.

Need, you became a part of our daily family life. We needed food, clothing, and shelter, our little family of five, a single mom with four daughters under the age of seven. You, Need, introduced us to welfare. You acquainted us with embarrassment and shame. You moved us into a trailer park. You are the reason I cried for an entire afternoon because I did not have a denim skirt to wear to my friend’s birthday party, and you are the reason my mom could not purchase one, even though she wanted to.

But you, Need, are also the reason that my mom went back to college and pursued a career in dental hygiene, something she is still passionate about. You are part of the reason that I studied so hard to try to obtain a scholarship myself. You are the one to thank for the circumstances that led to my mom becoming best friends with Kay Egan, a woman with a gigantic golden heart. You’re to thank for the chance to grow up with near-cousins and to be loved by near-grandparents, for the chance to climb trees, explore barns, and ride tractors. You, Need, are who taught me that I’m no better than anyone else. That people in poverty aren’t always stuck in the mud as a result of poor choices. Thank you for making it impossible for my mom to take care of us on her own. If she’d been able to, I wouldn’t have received countless gifts of kindness and selflessness, like my Sunday School teacher in first grade who offered to pay for me to learn gymnastics, which is still my favorite sport.

Kay and John Egan, 2000

Kay and John Egan, 2000

Need, I could choose to hate you. But I don’t. I’m thankful for your place in my life, even today. I’m thankful for the irritability and negativity that rises up in me when I don’t focus on the Solution. That need prompts me to change. I’m thankful for the times when I have to spend less and save more. This keeps me humble and dependent on the Giver. I’m thankful for the times when I can’t make my daughter feel better and for the times when I can’t figure out how to get her to eat more, nurse less, or go to sleep. It keeps me from attaining parental perfection, and that leads me to accept help and input from my Wise Dad who knows my child better than I do. I’m thankful for my own powerlessness and lack of ability to manage every situation solely.  This keeps my egotistical, self-righteous self from bragging and annoying everyone I meet, and it keeps me coming back for help from the Ultimate Guru.

I need you, Need, to get me to gratitude.

I need Need to get me to God.

 

Day 18: Dear Perfect Baby

*Day 18 of the Dear Gratitude project is really special; my former boss and friend, Jenny Cannon, shares her reflections on her decision to forgo having an amniocentesis procedure prior to delivering her daughter, Claire, who was diagnosed with Down syndrome at birth.*

It has been six months.  Six months since I anxiously timed contractions and took a warm bath to ease the pain.  Six months since my husband and I nervously laughed and joked about my labor starting one day before my scheduled c-section.  Six months since I delivered the most beautiful baby girl I had ever laid eyes on.  And six months since we received the diagnosis– Down syndrome.

Claire DSI have a lot to be thankful for in the last 6 months:  a healthy baby, no medical complications, an amazing husband and the love and support of my friends and family.  But one thing I’m surprisingly thankful for is that I did not have a prenatal diagnosis.  Don’t get me wrong; I did not feel this way in the beginning.  In fact, initially I was angry that I didn’t have a prenatal diagnosis.  I had 3 high-resolution ultrasounds–how did the doctors not know!?!  I said many times “if only I had known, I would have…”  But when it comes down to it, what would I have done if I had known that my precious little angel would have 47 chromosomes? I can say for certain I would not have terminated my pregnancy, but that’s where my certainty ends.

Would I have let the myths and stereotypes of Down syndrome negatively affect the remainder of my pregnancy?    Would I have let my tears and disappointment get in the way of the love growing in my heart?  Would sadness and depression have stopped me from decorating the nursery or buying every piece of baby gear available?  Would the nervous laughter and excitement I felt on the way to the hospital have been replaced by dread and fear?  Would grief have prevented me from truly celebrating my pregnancy or Claire’s birth?  Would a prenatal diagnosis have caused me to give up without giving her a fighting chance?  I don’t know.

What would have been different if I had a prenatal diagnosis . . .  I will never know, and for that, I’m thankful.

Claire pageant picA prenatal diagnosis could not have convinced me that my little baby would be perfect.  Or that her smile would light up every room she enters and that she would immediately calm all my worries and fears.  Or that the love I would feel for her and the pride I have for her accomplishments would equal the love and pride I have for my firstborn child.

Today I say thank you to the doctor who discouraged me from having an amnio; thank you to the nurse who emphasized the risks involved with having one; and thank you to the sonographers for maintaining their belief that there was nothing wrong with the little girl growing in my tummy.  They were right—there is NOTHING wrong with Claire.  She is perfect just the way God made her–all 47 chromosomes!

Day 8: The Beaver Kids Give Thanks

*Today’s post is a three-in-one: three first-time guest writers, who happen to be children and siblings, share their gratitude in these inspiring, unedited posts. These kids are amazing, and so are their parents, Jessica Cline-Beaver and Luke Beaver, who I had the privilege of knowing in college. It’s worth your time to check out Jessica’s blog, too.*

The Beaver family

The Beaver family

Dear Family,

I am thankful for you.

I am  thankful for my brothers and sisters. If i am scared i always have some one to sleep with. When I am lonely I have someone to play with. The babies make me laugh.

You always take me on trips. When we go you make sure I have the stuff I need. My favorite place to go is Ohio. When I went to get my American Girl doll.

You love me with all your heart. You show me love by celebrating my birthday. I also feel love when you say, “I love you.” I feel love when you tell me it.

You always cheer me on when I ride my bike, dance ballet or have horse lessons.

Thank you family for what you have done.

Love,

Ashlee

 

 

 

BeaverDear Baseball,

I am thankful for you because you are my favorite sport. Here is why.

You are fun. I enjoy throwing a ball. I like to hit the ball hard. I run fast around the bases.

You are my favorite way to spend time with my Dad. He teaches me how to play. My Dad and I like to go to ballgames.

You help me make new friends by showing good sportsmanship and spending  Time together with my friends.

Thank you baseball for all you give me.

Your Friend,

Lucas

Dear School,

Beaver ElizabethI am thankful for you school for many  reasons.

I am thankful for the subject of reading . Wen you are able to read you can learn.And it is fun! Especially wen you can read books by your self!

I am thankful for the subject of spelling. Because it teaches me how to spell. I am thankful for grammar because it teaches me how to write. I enjoy read aloud because it is relaxing and quiet.

I am thankful for you, school, because I am able to learn. Some kids in other countries are too poor to go to school But I am able to learn freely.

I am thankful for my teacher. She is fun. She also happens to be my Mom!

Thank you school for all you have taught me.

Your Friend,

Elizabeth

 

Oh brother!

*I’m so thankful for Dr. Teresa Burns Murphy for sharing this piece!*

With our book satchels on our arms, my sister Liz and I tumbled out of our dad’s Ford Galaxie 500.  We crunched across the winter grass and bounded up the concrete steps that led to our grandmother’s white frame house.  Our car coats hung loosely on our shoulders as the temperature that January afternoon had climbed into the lower seventies.  We stood at the door and waited for our grandmother, whom we called Mom, to let us in.  Liz and I had spent lots of time with Mom – learning to crochet, putting together jigsaw puzzles, and sleeping in her featherbed.  Usually, I was delighted to spend the night at Mom’s house, but not this time.     

     Mom was short and plump and typically wore an apron over a floral print dress.  She appeared at the door, a twinkle in her mischievous brown eyes when she said, “You two better get in here!”

Dr. Teresa Burns Murphy, the year her brother Rob was born

Dr. Teresa Burns Murphy, the year her brother Rob was born

Mom waved at our dad as he backed his car out of her driveway and headed to the hospital to check on our mother and our brand new baby brother.

     Liz and I followed Mom through her living room into the kitchen that always smelled of home cooking – roast beef, chicken and dumplings, and biscuits that tasted better cold than most people’s tasted right out of the oven.   She led us back to the den where we generally did our visiting and playing.  Sunlight streamed through the open slats of the Venetian blinds as Liz and I took our places on an overstuffed couch, and Mom sat down in her rocking chair.   

     According to Mom, when the conversation rolled around to our new baby brother, I folded my arms across my chest and proclaimed, “I’ll tell you something right now.  I’m not going to take anything off of him.”

     I’m sure I said it because even though I was seven at the time, I still remember that weighty feeling of distress the day I found out our family of four was about to become a family of five.

     “But I like our family just the way it is,” I remember telling my mother.

     “You’ll like the new baby, too,” she reassured me.

     I wasn’t convinced.  Liz is two years older than I am; and, while she had proven on numerous occasions to be excellent in a crisis, she could also be a bit bossy.  I feared I was about to be bookended by a boss and a baby. 

     Already, I was feeling crowded out by that new baby.  When my dad picked Liz and me up from school, I was all set to tell him what a horrible day I’d had.  Of course, he was full of good news about the baby!  And, worst of all, we didn’t even have time to swing by our house and pick up a change of clothes for the next day.

     “Great,” I thought, fuming in the backseat.  “Not only did I flunk my science test today, I’m going to have to wear these same clothes to school tomorrow.”

     Lo and behold, I survived spending the night at Mom’s house as well as being an outfit repeater the next day at school.  A few days later, my mother and brother came home from the hospital.  The day I had dreaded for months had finally arrived – the bassinet with the blue trim was occupied.

     “This is Robert,” my mother said.

Teresa's little brother, Rob

Teresa’s little brother, Rob

When I peered beneath the bassinet’s hood, I was speechless, and I was in love.  Robert wasn’t the horrible creature I was anticipating.  He wasn’t flimsy either; he weighed nine pounds and twelve ounces when he was born.  In a word, he was perfect.  And, best of all, he couldn’t talk; hence, he couldn’t boss.

     It wasn’t long before Robert, whom we called Rob, could play.  I liked to sit on the big braided rug that covered our living room floor and roll a ball back and forth to him.  We spent many happy hours pulling around his Fisher Price milk wagon and taking the milk bottles out of the wagon and putting them back in again.  On his first birthday, I got him a wind-up toy dog, and my mother told me that was his favorite present.

     A few years later when Liz and I had morphed into pesky adolescents, Rob was a cute kindergartener.  One night, when we were all sitting around the supper table, Liz or I had done something to annoy our mother.  I had possibly stayed in my room after being repeatedly called to the table. (I sometimes got carried away, holding my hairbrush-microphone, singing along with the radio and pretending to be a rock star.)  Or, maybe Liz had lingered in her own room too long, reading a thick novel or practicing her clarinet.  Either one of us was perfectly capable of being the source of our mother’s frustration.

     “I’m running out of patience with you!” she said.

     Rob was sitting next to her, and he held out his pudgy little hand and said, “Here, I’ll give you some of mine.”

     That same year he was the valedictorian of his kindergarten class.  Always the smartest guy in the room, Rob has racked up more academic awards than the rest of the family combined.  He went on to earn an MBA from the University of California at Irvine and become a business owner.

     Everybody hits rough spots in his or her life, and Rob has certainly had his share.  I’ve read a ton of novels and even written a few.  In recent years, Rob’s life has unfolded like a novel you would not be able to put down.  At times, you would love to be the protagonist.  At other times, you thank your lucky stars you aren’t.   My brother has navigated the twists and turns of his life with integrity and a great deal of patience.

     Whenever I have hit rough spots in my own life, Rob has always been there for me.  He is the most loyal person I know.  Funny how it works out, isn’t it?  That baby brother I was so intent on disliking turned out to be a very good friend.