On conquering the world

My friend Cara Meredith invites people to write guest posts on her blog, and she always has the best prompts. Last year she had us write about unexpected moments, and I got to tell a bit of my love story. This year the prompt is rituals, and I loved getting to write about one of the sweetest things that has developed in our home: the unexpected ritual of world-conquering. Here’s a snippet (and here’s the whole link..)

clotho98

It’s 8:11am, and there’s fussing by the front door:

“Where are your shoes?”

“I can’t find my library book.”

“Why didn’t you unpack your lunch bag yesterday?”

“Hurry up! I don’t want to get another tardy note!”

In the flurry, zips are zipped, snacks are packed, and finally, my husband and older kids tumble out the door. I stand with my youngest—both still in our pajamas and slippers—and call out to them: “Bye! Love you! Conquer the world!” My three year old echoes in a voice that echoes down the street: “Conquer! The! World!!!” and his Daddy rolls down the window as he backs out the driveway and shouts back, “bye! Conquer your little world, too!”

Tail lights disappear down the street, and we click the front door closed.

This is how it happens every day.

(Read the rest here)

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Clotho98

Building My Marriage One IKEA Bookcase at a Time

marriage

Maybe this sounds weird, but I find assembling IKEA furniture to be a profound marriage-building activity.

Actually, I know it sounds weird.

I know couples who bond on marriage retreats, or through deep-and-meaningful conversations, or share hiking, or photography, or puppy/pony/ferret-taming. To each their own, n’est ce pas? For us, two things stand out as significantly maritally-enriching activities: first, cooking together. Second, tackling a box of interlocking particleboard planks—armed only with a leaflet of wordless instructions and ambiguous cartoons and a couple of Allen wrenches—and turning it into a piece of furniture.

Over the years, we have developed something of an assembly-rhythm: we know who opens the boxes (me), and who lays out the pieces (him). We know where we put the screws and bolts (in the bag or next to it?) We have developed a sense of when this is a one-person step while the other finds the pieces for the step-to-come, or whether this particular step requires both of us to grab a tool and work on opposite sides tightening bolts.

There’s something about the symmetry of lifting something heavy at the same time without it toppling, of one holding it steady while the other fastens the joint into place that reminds me we’re a two-as-one team. We work quickly, with little-to-no haggling, and somehow, assembling furniture together makes me feel gorgeously in sync with him.

Perhaps it is a throwback to the early years of marriage, when many thing were difficult, and talking was hard. We were setting up house and figuring stuff out, and yet somehow, in the rhythm of building bookcases, we found a sweet spot: an hour of togetherness as we were literally on the same page, literally building our home.

In the space of an hour we could transform our space: on bended knees with tools and particleboard, we could work side by side and arise more together than we had been before, as if we ourselves were being joined, tightened, better fit in the process. “Some assembly required” is something true of relationships, too.

Our home was more homey at the end, and not just because we had better storage space.

(Aside: If Ikea had a name for this perhaps it would be Mårrïj: their design names being hilariously funny, as Darna discovered.)

There was a season when we assembled a lot of furniture. These days, with a house full of kids and ample book cases, those opportunities are rarer. But when they come, I relish them, for the nuts and bolts of relationships are not just shared responsibilities, but shared wins: Look! We build that! We did it! Together!

For some,  theirs is a story told by vacation photos, or a successfully tamed ferrets. For me, there are bookcases and sets of Malm drawers that serve as milestones in our marital journey. Here we are: Team Us. Making our home.

The Joy of Cousins

The Joy of Cousins

Planning vacations has always been an optimization exercise of some sort: how can you see the most places on a modest budget? Is the extra cost of flying pay worth it for the extra time you might have spent driving? Which route will allow you to see the most National Parks/countries/restaurants with Michelin-stars? Dozens of hours and hundreds of internet searches are devoted to discerning the good from the best.

These days, I have a new criterion in planning holidays: which option will give us the most time with cousins? Because, dear friends, more and more I’m appreciating that cousins can be solid gold in the treasure bank of childhood memories.

Since they share a common ancestor, cousins are close enough to share some common stories, common interests, and (quite possibly) some common eccentricities (You can also curl your tongue? Cool! Your mother also makes you drink kefir? Awesome! You also know the words to going-gang-goolly-goolly-goolly-whatsit-ging-gang-goo? I thought that was my Dad’s own personal cup of crazy.)

But, unlike a sibling who shares all these things, a cousin is also far enough removed to have the thrill of some novelty: know a game you haven’t learned, go to a school you don’t go to, or—in our case—be able to sing Happy Birthday in a different language. Cousins, at their best, are an exquisite blend of both familiar and exotic.

Cousins can be a tribe you belong to without having had to try out.

Cousins nestle in that space where they can be both family and friends.

And cousins come attached to grown-ups: aunts and uncles (or cousins once-removed), who know all about your parents’ crazy quirks, and have a built-in love for you already. Aunts and uncles can often tell you silly story about what your mom or dad were like when they were a kid: blowing holes in that serious-parent guise that moms and dads sometimes like to hide behind. Aunts and uncles remember your parents as children, and tell fantastical stories about that time Daddy got a carrot stuck up his nose, and Mommy went up and down the street selling raffle tickets to the neighbors with her sisters’ birthday gifts as the prizes (true story).

And of course, this mommy has her own set of stories to tell the cousins about their parents as revenge.

Our kids have no cousins nearby: in fact, they have no cousins on the same continent. But every now and then, a family wedding or a big birthday will allow us a couple of days with cousins. The days are hectic and loud and meal times are crazy: too many food preferences and not enough chairs. Travel is exhausting and sleeping arrangements are always cramped. All of this is…. less than optimal.

But, no matter where we are in the world, I need only look up to see a herd of children—a clutch of cousins—running laps in the yard, planning mayhem or trading secrets and finding the best hiding spots, and it is all worth it.

And so we sit, with our calendars open, and dream of vacations in the years to come: places we’d like to go, things we’d like to do. We wonder when we should go, and how we should budget for it. And, as the years go by, we find ourselves asking one extra question: will there be cousins?

 

 

Help, I’m newly married and pregnant

Yes, this is a photo of a stick with pee on it.

Yes, this is a photo of a stick with pee on it.

Dear Bronwyn,

I just found out that I am pregnant and have only been married 5 months! We were diligently taking birth control, I am in the middle of my graduate program & my husband makes very little money. How are we to handle such a big change that we did NOT plan on having for another 4 or 5 years?                                   – Not Ready

Dear Not Ready,

I well remember feeling so broke and afraid of getting pregnant when we first moved to the US. We were newly married, had no money and very little support and I couldn’t afford any health care at all. I think I would have collapsed on the floor weeping at first if that pregnancy test had two positive little lines.

It is a BIG surprise. And it means BIG changes for you. But this is one of those classic examples where we have to say that while man makes plans, The Lord ultimately directs our steps. And the things we know to be true about Him is that He is good. He loves you. And He calls us, just like Jesus said to the disciples in the boat in mark 6 when the waves were threatening to engulf them, to not be afraid, but to have faith.

Jesus will lead you through this.

I remember a few years into our marriage doing some reading and being convicted that I had had some very wrong thinking about marriage and kids. I realized I had been making pro and con lists about whether and when we should have kids. And then at some point it was as if God said to me: “Bronwyn, I have said that children are a BLESSING. By definition that means they are a PRO. why are you making pro and con lists when I already told you which it is?” It was hard to hear at first, but actually greatly freeing for me.

God has obviously decided that right now you get to be blessed with this pregnancy. He intends it for good. You are definitely old enough. You are married enough.

You are ten years older than Mary was when God chose her to be the mother of Jesus.
And you have more marital experience than she.
And you have better health care.
And you have the spirit of the living God jnside you.
You are going to do GREAT. Have faith: if God has called you to this, He will equip and provide!

As far as feeling ready or prepared for parenting…. Well, let me just say that I don’t think we are ever really READY to be parents. It’s a huge big surprising adventure in grace. God gives us pregnancy months not just to grow a baby, but also to grow us. By the time baby comes, we are as ready as we will ever be – and in God’s grace, it will be enough. We don’t get a second shot at anything in parenting: we are never ready for babies, or for the first time our kids sass us, or the first time they really hurt themselves, or for them to be teenagers. Parenting is all about living in the moment by Gods grace.

On a practical note: your ob-gyn may not see you for several weeks. A doctor may consider your home test sufficient proof and only schedule a first visit and ultrasound at around 10-12 weeks, so it is possible you will have a few weeks to wait. If so, here’s my advice:

  • Take pre natal vitamins. Start this TODAY and don’t delay. The big thing with prenatals is the folic acid which, in the first weeks of baby’s life, eradicate the possibility of spina biffida. If you get nauseous taking them, try taking them with food or at different times of the day. But do take them.
  • Even if you’re planning to keep this a secret for a while, tell a handful of people. The first trimester is sometimes easy going, but sometimes rough. It is exhausting physically, especially around weeks 8-11, and you may need help and grace from friends. Also, if something does happen with the baby, you will need support. Trust me on this: we had one miscarriage and I was glad I had told just a few people. I needed them.
  • Finally, look into state sponsored prenatal care, which may cover many (if not all) your prenatal costs, and possibly also your baby’s healthcare for the first year of their life. If you already have health care, state health care will pick up the co-pay/deductibles etc. In our case, we were only be able to apply after the first ultrasound as we had to take in the picture to prove your pregnancy, but it was totally worth the red tape and the wait. We were SO THANKFUL for it. The state support for young families made us all the more willing to pay tax dollars in the years that followed.

You are going to be okay! There is a community of older, godly women which God has prepared JUST FOR YOU to give you all the advice, help, nurture and encouragement you need. He will give you more mothers to bear you up as you set out on this new journey of being a mother yourself.

I hope this helps. You and your husband are starting out on a grand adventure. You may not be ready to hear this yet, but CONGRATULATIONS!

On why letting your kid pet that duckling might lead to anarchy

Every Fall we take our kids (of the human variety) to a delightful local farm where there are piglets, ducklings, kittens, chicks and kids (of the goatish variety). They love it.

Here’s how it is supposed to work: carefully seated on hay bales and with the assistance of an adult, kids who are 2 and older are allowed to snuggle with newborn kittens. Kids of 3 and older are allowed to hold kittens or chicks. Kids of 4 or older are allowed to hold ducklings.

However, here’s how it often does work: carefully seated on hay bales, kids who are 2 or who are 1 and whose parents think they are as tall as, as smart as or as responsible as a 2 year old, get left holding the kitten while Mommy backs away from the kid for the photo op. Ditto for chicks and the kids deemed as smart/tall/responsible as REAL 3 year olds. Ditto for ducklings and the kids deemed as smart/tall/responsible as REAL 4 year olds.

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Apart from the fact that such behavior is unfair to the animals and unfair to other patrons who are waiting their turn, I write this because I deeply believe that breaking the rules for our kids is actually unfair to our kids.

Here’s why. As parents, we expend a great amount of energy trying to teach our children to do right. They say “No”, and we parrot “No thank you”. They say “Yes”, and we parrot “Yes please”. We parrot “listen to your teacher”. We parrot “don’t run in the street”. We parrot “don’t eat with your mouth full”. These, and a thousand other rules and instructions, are repeated because we hope to train our kids in the right direction: we want them to become good citizens, good people.

However, there is truth in all the cliche’s:

Behavior is more CAUGHT than TAUGHT.

PRACTICE what you PREACH.

ACTIONS speak louder than WORDS.

And so it worries me, that in a generation where we keep trying to TELL our children how to live, we are MODELING behavior which says “the rules only apply when they suit you.”

Our children may be  young, but far from thinking “oh they are too young to notice”, we would do well to remember that they are being imprinted by observation. I still vividly remember being taken to the circus by my grandfather when I was in my first year of elementary school. As we stood in the queue for tickets, I pointed out to him that the tickets for little kids were half of the cost for kids of school-going age. “I could say I’m not in school yet, Oupa,” I offered. His reply was gentle but firm: “But you ARE in school, and so that’s what we’ll say.”

I was only 6, but the memory of that conversation came back to me years later when I was short-of-cash and riding the tube in London. The conductor asked how far I was traveling. I could have said I’d just got on. But I hadn’t. I had ridden much further, and so that was what I had to say.

Our children are watching us.

And so when the rules say “no food or drink in the play zone”, and we sneak in juice and crackers because we don’t want to buy snacks there – let’s not teach our kids that it’s okay to disrespect the rules if it is more convenient.

And when the rules say “no holding ducks until you’re 4”, and “only with an adult’s assistance” – let’s pass on the photo op and hold the duckling for our 3 year old so they can still pet it.

And when the rules say “no cellphone use while you’re driving”, let’s wait to check that text or let it go to voicemail (Aack! convicted!)

Because our children are watching us. And one day, they will have to tell the truth when it hurts. They will have to make a choice between forgoing an opportunity or lying to get it. They will have to write resumes. They will have to decide whether to take a lower grade and write the paper themselves or whether to plagiarize. They will have to pay their taxes. They will have to decide whether to be faithful to their friends and spouses.

One day, our children will be influential contributors to civil society – where justice and community are underpinned by that all-important concept of the rule of law. Democracy cannot exist without it: “the principle that all people and institutions are subject to and accountable to law that is fairly applied and enforced”.

Friends: it’s not about the duckling. It’s about teaching our kids that the rules apply to us. We are not above the law, even on minor issues like holding ducklings. We are being unfair to our kids if our actions teach our kids that rules exist for people, but especially OTHER people. As my sister astutely pointed out to me: “We are not ‘stuck in traffic’. We ARE traffic.”

Oh how I pray that, hapless and hypocritical as I sometimes can be, they when all is said and done they will have learned from us that they need to do what is right even when no-one is watching. Our futures depend on it.

 

 

On C.S. Lewis and being a ‘homemaker’

On CS Lewis, homemakers and the Ultimate Career

I recently stumbled upon a quote that made this stay-at-home-mama’s heart leap:

The homemaker has the ultimate career. All other careers exist for one purpose only – and that is to support the ultimate career.”

-C.S. Lewis

I read it, and read it, and read it again. Then I let my eyes savor who had penned those words. I mean really, if C.S. Lewis said it – it HAS to be true! I posted the quote on Facebook and the it garnered ‘likes’ by-the-minute. Clearly I am not the only one needed to hear exactly this today.

domestic bliss

Modern Homemakers of 2013?

Why did it strike such a chord? I think the reason it leaped out at me was that, at first, I read it to mean this: “a stay at home Mom has the most valuable and important career.”

Now as a stay-at-home Mom, I am in SORE NEED OF ENCOURAGEMENT. Every single day is one spent being busy, busy, busy. The hours are long. The work is never done. There are hours and hours of laundry and refereeing and fort-building and sandwiches being made and then rejected. Each day involves about thirty forays under the dining table to retrieve Something Sticky. Every day involves multiple trips to the bathroom to rinse Something Sticky (sadly, often underpants). And yet at the end of each day I look at the fruit of my labor, and most days this is what I come up with:

Nothing.

At the end of the day, judging by the physical evidence around me, I see zero dollars earned, zero surface areas cleaned, and judging by the whining and sass, zero character development in my children either.

Yet, in my heart, I know that this is worthwhile. I know that I need to take the long-view. I just need to be encouraged and reminded that This Is Worth It, and My Time At Home Makes A Difference. Because the physical evidence to refute that piles up daily in my sink. Amidst the daily grind of parenting there is also the colossal mental battle of discouragement and fear that needs to be fought.

So when C.S. Lewis, that great author of things wise and pithy, writes something which seems to say that this, THIS, my underpaid, undervalued, underwhelming and very-sticky existence – is the Ultimate Career – I feel validated and worthy again, even if just for a moment.

A little internet sleuthing revealed the original source for the quote, which appears to have been someone’s precis of something he wrote in a “letter to Mrs Ashton” in 1955:

“I think I can understand that feeling about a housewife’s work being like that of Sisyphus (who was the stone rolling gentleman). But it is surely in reality the most important work in the world. What do ships, railways, miners, cars, government etc exist for except that people may be fed, warmed, and safe in their own homes? As Dr. Johnson said, “To be happy at home is the end of all human endeavour”. (1st to be happy to prepare for being happy in our own real home hereafter: 2nd in the meantime to be happy in our houses.) We wage war in order to have peace, we work in order to have leisure, we produce food in order to eat it. So your job is the one for which all others exist…” (pg 447-Letter of CS Lewis 1988 ed.)

What a wonderful man to have corresponded with. Mrs Ashton’s heart was, no doubt, warmed as mine was to read his words.

However, as I’ve been mulling over this quote today, a thought has occurred to me, and now that I have read the original quote I think I need to tweak my initial understanding of Lewis’ words.

By “ultimate” career, he did not solely mean ultimate as in “highest, greatest and unsurpassed.” He was not saying that homemaking is the most fabulous career, the best one, the one-that-can’t-be-beat. Lovely as it sounds, it would be hard to accept his encouragement as truly true if that was what he meant. There is a pile of dishes in my sink to refute that claim, after all.

Rather, by “ultimate”, I think he means “the last, the furthest, ending a process or series. The final or total. The fundamental.” I think he means by “ultimate” what in Greek is meant by the word ‘telos’ – it’s the final goal. It’s the career to which all other careers point.

Reading it like that, I think, means that Lewis’ words of encouragement stretch their warmth and wisdom beyond the realm of the stay-at-home mama, and in fact speak to us all, for:

.. You, working mama, work not to selfishly advance your career, but to provide for your home. To make a place which is warm and safe and in which your family that you love can thrive. Your career is also in service of the ultimate goal: you are using your skills as best you can to make your house a HOME.

.. and You, working daddy, work ultimately not for prestige or money or selfish advancement, but to provide for your FAMILY. You too, are working towards the ultimate career – to provide for your home. You work at “work”, but ultimately, you are working for your home.

… and yes You too, stay at home mama or stay at home daddy, are working in the ultimate career: using your strengths, gifts, time, service to make your house a HOME. And that Sisyphean task is valuable.

CS Lewis’ words are encouraging to me as I face my sticky-floor, but not in the sense that my career as a stay-at-home is “different from other careers and most highly esteemed”. Rather, today his words are encouraging to me because they remind me that my career as a SAHM is, in fact, the same as other careers, in that we are all ultimately seeking to make a HOME.

And that goal of creating happy homes, which “prepares for being happy in our own real home hereafter”,

(whether done directly by floor-and-butt-wipers like me,)

(or indirectly by engineers-like my husband,)

(or indirectly by my brave and wonderful working-mama friends,)

…..is a goal worthy of encouragement.
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