Lessons Learned


When that Mama worry takes ahold of a woman you can’t expect no sense from her.  She’ll do or say anything at all and you just better hope you ain’t in her way. That’s the Lord’s doing right there.  He made mothers to be like that on account of children need protecting… Helping that child be up to the Mama.  But God never gives us a task without giving us the means to see it through.  

                                    – Florence’s voice in Mudbound, by Hillary Jordan.

Mothering has offered me many opportunities to grow past the simplistic outlook that life should be easy, and I’ve mostly ignored these moments.  I’ve never been able to embrace the idea that hardship brings about blessings, but I hear enough people recite it as truth that I am trying to embrace it.  I have seen children, my own included, go through painful seasons of social difficulty and against all odds, come out on the other side, maybe not stronger for it, but strongish.

Often, the only blessing I can see in the face of suffering is the gift of offering empathy to others who will someday walk down the same path of pain.  In the spirit of sisterhood, I send these lessons learned out to all the broken hearted mamas who will watch their children suffer under the words and hands of cruel kids.  I wish that I was a clinical psychologist or at least understood the social lives of children better, but I don’t.  I just know that when kids go through these sorts of rough patches, the watching of it can be very painful on their mothers.  (The following list assumes that your child is not being physically harmed, but is enduring verbal teasing, lack of friends, and social isolation.)

Why this happens to some kids, how they spiral and what intangible powers are at work is all still unknown to me.  Why and when it stops and turns around also seems unpredictable and random.  But here are some lessons I learned that I hope makes traversing the path during this season a little easier.

Lesson #1: Always remember, this too shall pass.

This is the most important lesson, so I’m putting it first. It will not always be this way.  This season is not a predictor of things to come.  I know your worse case scenario and it’s not pretty.  You are imagining him homeless at age twenty-five, wandering the streets with his hands in his pants. I promise you that is not where he is headed. One day in the not-so-distant future you will happen to glance over at him when he doesn’t know you are watching and you will see a bright-eyed, happy, well-adjusted boy who has friends and loves his life. In that moment, it will actually be hard to remember the kid who came home from school each day crying, the one who couldn’t seem to navigate any of the social dilemmas or status-jockeying that seemed to come easily to his peers. (But of course you will remember, because Mamas never forget.) Hear me: he will be joyful again. This is only a season.

Lesson #2: Keep it positive.

As frustrating as it is to see what is happening, try your very best not to pile on.  Sometimes it’s so obvious what she is doing wrong and how she is setting herself up to be picked on, but when you start sentences with Oh my God, if you are ever going to have friends, you need to stop doing this, it just feels like more people hating on her.  She already knows she is making social mistakes and she doesn’t need your yelling about it.  Recognize how deeply disappointed you are that your kid is “like this,” go into your closet and yell and scream at how unfair it is. Leave your disappointment right there in your closet and walk away from it.  It’s not doing you or your daughter any good.  She is the kid you got and she is the one who needs you right now. That means that when you hear that she fell on the gym floor sobbing when someone called her a retard, you give her a hug and a big smile and you say, I wonder what might have happened if you had stuck your tongue out at her instead of crying? instead of throwing your hands up in the air and shouting How many times have I told you not to cry at school?  When she tells you that everyone at recess was in a two person game and there were no three person games so she grabbed the ball and ran away with it to pout in a corner, don’t give a big sigh and say with exasperation, When will you ever learn?  Don’t allow her to misinterpret your own frustration with blame.

Lesson #3: Stay away from the bullies and their parents.

Allow yourself to daydream about all the ways you’d like to inflict pain on the mean kids and their clueless parents. Get creative and think up wild scenarios.  And then leave them in your daydream and go about your normal life.  Do not act on any of them because doing so will make things much worse for your child and you will be modeling retaliation.  I know it’s hard to understand this right now, but those mean kids are most likely kids on the receiving end of similar treatment.  Likewise, calling the kids’ parents and politely explaining what is happening is tricky terrain.  If your intention is to build community and strengthen your friendship with those parents, by all means, make the call.  But without those guiding intentions, the call usually ends badly.  When you are ready, say a prayer for those kids.  The words will likely stick in your throat the first five hundred times you try it, but eventually it will become a habit and will feel good.

Lesson #4: Recognize that your pain is separate from his pain.

This is a tricky one because it comes close to implying that you are making it all up in your head and he is just fine and nothing is really happening. I know you are hearing enough of that kind of thing already, so trust me that I am not going in that direction.  But it is very important that you figure out what kinds of things this experience is bringing up in you.  Rejection, betrayal, loneliness, shame and disappointment are just a short list of what you are probably dealing with.  If you’ve never been to therapy, now is a great time to check in with someone who can guide you toward healing. Your kid needs you to be healthy in this way so you can provide him solid support.  If possible, don’t operate from your own well of emotional need.  Get yourself together and be crystal clear about what you are feeling as compared to what he is experiencing.

Lesson #5 Cancel your Friday night plans.

I know a million parenting books will remind us that we are called to be Parent not Friend and I usually agree with them.  But these are not normal times and you are going to have to take on a new role in her life and it’s called B.F.F.  No matter how bored you are with the card game, ping-pong, scrabble, or the Nancy Drew computer game, you play it.  I don’t care if you hate watching fantasy or romantic movies, you go with her and act interested while you are there. Never say, Wouldn’t you rather invite someone your age to go with you?  If she had that option she would already be calling friends. Pointing it out is just rubbing her face in it and the message you want to convey is this: You are fun to hang out with and your interests, opinions, and comments are fascinating to me. You are all she’s got right now and you need to keep her social and active!

Lesson #6: Don’t be disappointed in your own friends.

They will not understand what you are feeling.  They are looking through their own unique lens and simply cannot see or feel what you are experiencing.  You will feel let down if you expect them to make any sort of difference.  Feel grateful if you find even one friend who will let you vent about it.  You probably sound like a broken record, and if even one gal pal has the patience to let you tell your stories over and over again, you are lucky.  Let them off the hook! You are alone in this and you are strong enough to handle it.

Lesson #7: Don’t blame!

Yes, kids are being mean and people need to protect your son from it. This season is hard to understand, layered with complexity, and all the players involved — including your sweet child — are flawed human beings.  The adults in his life (the teachers, the youth group leader, the coaches) are likely trying very hard to help.  Do engage those adults and partner with them to support your family.  But leave blame behind.

Lesson #8: Act!

Switch schools, get her into a social skills group, hire a shadow, sign her up for karate lessons, get her evaluated or simply try some new summer camps.  Don’t allow yourself to be paralyzed by this.  Getting help is not the same as deciding all this is her fault.  Sometimes tweaking one small aspect of the equation is all the help she will need, but you won’t know what will help until you try something.

Lesson #9: Show him unconditional love.

I know this sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised to notice all the ways our parenting offers conditional love.  Think about how you give a hug or a kiss or an I’m proud of you! when he gets an A, cleans his room or clears the table without being asked, and how often you offer a frown, a sarcastic comment, or a frustrated tone when he disappoints you.  All that adds up to a clear understanding of conditional love whether you mean to pass that along or not.  Now that he is in trouble, you’ve been given the perfect opportunity to adjust your parenting so that you discipline, guide and well, parent with unconditional love.  If the world were writing all the rules right now, he’s falling to the bottom of the food chain and is feeling pretty love starved.  You have a chance to make a difference. Show him how loved and valued he is.  This season can really stretch our abilities and our emotional bandwidth.  Anxiety and worry are exhausting and I am betting they are filling your days and nights.   The Five Love Languages of Children might be a great book to get you thinking about creative ways to show unconditional love.

Finally, Lesson #10. Root her identity.

Only you know your value system and what your family culture honors.  But consider this: there will always be a better skier, a smarter science major, a tougher basketball player and a more skilled flute player. During this time when she is feeling torn down by her peers, honoring and celebrating her natural gifts is very important.  Helping her find her worth outside of these gifts is difficult but much more life-giving. Be careful about the message you send her during this time.  When you are tempted to say things like The kids pick on you because they are jealous that you are smarter than they are, choose instead to say, I’m proud of your compassion and how you help people.  I hope today gives you an opportunity to help someone. When she graduates from this difficult phase she will be sustained for the long haul if her value is placed in something more eternal than her GPA.  Her sense of herself has to come from a deeper place, a place we might call her soul. She needs to know that no matter how others treat her, or how accomplished she becomes, she is known and loved.  This is the hardest lesson of all. We live in a pressure-filled, accomplish-driven world.  Rising above it to a place of spirituality, surrender, trust and hope is the challenge placed before you.

Mama, you’re going to get through this in one piece and so is your loved child.

Photo credit

Grasping Ash Wednesday

I asked my twelve-year-old son at dinner last night to explain to me his grasp of the meaning of Ash Wednesday and Lent.  It took him a while to stop asking if he was “right,” and just relax into explaining his understanding of it.

On Ash Wednesday we take the ashes from the burned palms from last year and wear them on our forehead.  We spend forty days fasting from something that is bad for us because Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness.

I quickly texted some friends and asked them to ask their children.  I was guessing that if I wanted to understand the tradition, I needed to ask the next generation of participants, those who embrace it with hearts wide open.

The ashes are from the palms from last year’s Palm Sunday, and we put them on our head on the first day of lent to remind us that we came from dust.

To me, Lent is a time of preparedness as we prepare to remember the death of Jesus.

We also think about all Jesus has done for us, so we fast and give up things we love in the name of Jesus Christ.

Lent is the time where you get to focus on your spirituality and God, by listening and learning about Jesus’ suffering. If I give up Internet time or junk food I want to do so not just to say “I gave this up” but because I’m inspired to prepare for Easter and better appreciate His suffering not mine.

When I was growing up I heard nothing about Lent or Ash Wednesday and our church didn’t follow the centuries old liturgical calendar. I didn’t know any Catholics except my great-grandmother and she was housebound, so I didn’t witness her religious rituals. Now I understand that many Christian traditions follow the Church calendar.  In fact, my own church will be holding an Ash Wednesday service this evening, and one of my favorite Pastors posted a beautiful piece about the day and its meaning.

But my first encounter with Ash Wednesday came only eight years ago.  I was scheduled to speak at an elementary school on the topic of “Passing on Faith to your Children.”  A large group of mothers showed up, and just across the hall from our meeting room was a chapel where many of their sons would be celebrating a service for Ash Wednesday a little while after our own meeting had begun.  After a few minutes of warm up, I dove into my notes about the ultimate importance of modeling and connecting with our children with whatever faith we held.  As I spoke of the value our children receive from watching us, most of those moms flew out of their chairs and raced across the hall to join their boys in receiving ashes.  It was affirming to know that my words had inspired them, but I learned about double checking dates and conflicts before organizing an event like that!

Today, I have loads of friends who participate in Lent and for a few years I watched from afar.  We moved our lunch dates around so we they wouldn’t be tempted by a chicken burrito on Fridays and I supported their chocolate fasts.

Two years ago I began writing spiritual reflections on Scriptural passages as they were calendared in the Catholic Church liturgical calendar.  I learned that every day of the year all Catholic priests speak from the same set of scriptures. Each week I would read the passage designated for a particular Sunday and attempt to write a thoughtful response.  By living inside this organized rhythm of Scripture, I began to see how the cycle of the yearly calendar led me through many important stories and passages to see the Bible for what it can be: a narrative of God’s love for us.

In my role, I wrote only about the specific Gospel readings (ya know, the Scriptures that come from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and mostly tell stories about the life of Jesus), but there are actually four or five scriptures combined for each day that always include an Old Testament passage, a Psalm as well as something from the Epistles.  If a person attends Mass every day for three years straight she will likely hear a sermon from every piece of the Bible.  And if a person wanted to organize herself for daily reading, she could click here.

If you attend Catholic mass (or any other denomination that follows the liturgical reading schedule) on Sundays during Lent you will hear two familiar stories: Jesus fasting in the desert and winning the fight with temptation, and Jesus taking Peter, James and John up to the mountain top.  I wrote about those stories during Lent last year, and appreciate that the calendar has circled us back to them. This year you’ll also hear about Jesus cleansing the Temple, the famous John 3:16 that you’ve seen on posters at football games, the Kingdom principle of giving up your own life for Jesus and gaining it back, and finally on Palm Sunday you’ll hear about the woman with the alabaster box.  Temptation, Ecstasy, Righteous Anger, Love, Self-denial, and finally, Humility.  Seriously, the 2012 Lenten season is packed with good stuff!

Last year about this time, I was deep in pain in my mama’s heart. I was alienating people around me with my constant worry and stress and I was beginning to feel crazy.  I couldn’t sleep well and I certainly wasn’t thinking clearly.  Along came Ash Wednesday and I decided to participate.  I gave up worry and tried to replace it with trust.  It was the single biggest game changer of my 2011, although one friend encouraged me to pick something easier for my first try, like chewing gum.  Every time my stomach began to roll and the obsessive thoughts entered, I had a reason to ignore them.  I would close my eyes and take a deep breath and imagine trust flowing in through my nostrils and down into my lungs and flowing to every part of my body, pushing out the stress.  There simply was no room left for it.

So perhaps my son was right that Lent is about giving up something bad for us.  Or maybe the other kid is right that we must give up something we love.

I am reminded of the story of the blind men touching an elephant and trying to describe what it looks like.  Each was feeling a different part – the smooth tusk, the wrinkled skin, the rough and sharp toenail.  Each was right, but none was grasping the whole picture.

Maybe the whole picture is too big to see.  Perhaps some years I need to learn that in the end I am nothing but dust and other years I need to know that my celebrations from last year will end in ashes this year.  Sometimes I need to fast in a way that pains me and other times I need to fast in a way that saves me.  Some years it’s a stretch for me to get over my petty self and connect with His suffering.

But each year, I probably could use the forty-day reminder that redemption is on the horizon. Resurrection is bigger than differences in tradition, worries in my heart, grasps of understanding, chocolate and chewing gum.  Alleluia, He is Risen will ring in my ears soon.

Love’s Role in Suffering.

I’ve been struggling against a popular idea that suffering brings growth.  Last week, I wrote about my own experiences with tough times. Character building and lessons learned have only come to pass in the aftermath of difficulty when God has used others to love me.

It turns out that almost everyone disagrees with me and I’m trying to figure out if we are simply describing nuanced differences of the same idea. From my perspective, problems do not cause growth, but instead it’s the out-pouring of love and support that brings healing.

Last week I heard many renditions of this:  Had I never gone through ________________ (financial crisis, health scare, betrayal, rejection), I would never have known the depths of________________  (my own resourcefulness, God’s faithfulness, the presence of love in the world around me, the intimacy in a specific relationship)!   I agree with this idea and I have my own small lessons learned to show that this simple equation can hold true. My sweet bloggy friend Jen wrote about the suffering that comes with loss and how this opened a more intimate relationship in her life. Gayle said she knew God in a deeper way once her house was burned down.  I know friends who have lost family members to tragedy and have come to appreciate those who are still alive all the more.  So why do I fight against this concept so much?

My main problem with embracing the no pain – no gain, it’s good for him, difficulty builds character attitude is that it absolves me from reaching out and helping.

There is a snarky, sneaky little voice that whispers absolution to me: No need to lift a finger, this is one of life’s little lessons for her to learn.  Or, She made her bed, now she’ll need to lie in it.

If the hungry family is experiencing what is “good” for them, why should I offer food?   If the crying child at recess is building character, why would other kids need to be coached in how to show love?  If the betrayed wife crying into her pillow is drawing closer to God because of her pain, who am I to try to stop it?

Suffering happens:  Yes

We can grow from it: Yes

How do I grow from it? By experiencing love and support during it.

What is my responsibility when I see others suffer? Love them.

Why are there so many who seem to create a vacant space around fellow suffer-ers?  Why do women in divorce feel as if they’ve lost their husband and their best friends in one fell swoop?  Why does a mother grieving her baby’s death feel so alone in her pain?  Why do bullied helpless children see other parents and teachers awkwardly look the other way?  Why do out-of-work men feel as if they have a contagious disease?  These dark times could be lessened with a little love.

Through support during hardship, I learned about unconditional love, grace, mercy and forgiveness.  These were the lessons I needed to know.  When there was no safety net and the bottom appeared to be cold, lonely and with no outstretched hand to hold, all I learned was to expect suffering. There was never redemption in the heartache.

But each time love entered…now, that was another story ending altogether.  I guess it’s my job to look at my own difficulties and recovery to figure out what they can teach me – about God, myself and other people.  When others are suffering, my job is to extend myself and alleviate as much of it as possible.