Some people have told me how talented they think I am, and inside I laugh. The most important lesson I’ve learnt in the process of writing is that practice makes better.
Very occasionally, writing these articles happens easily. I wake up very early in the morning with a thought in my mind, get dressed, grab my glasses and my car keys and head to a coffee shop, and voila, 40 minutes later an article is born. But more often, they are a slog—an enjoyable slog.
I became a writer quite accidentally … well, so I thought, until I took a look back at how it happened.
Our little family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, when our children were four, two and not quite one. Even before we were married we’d planned to move overseas for Chris to do post-doctorate research. We figured that I would be stuck at home with little kids during this time, so it didn’t really matter where we were.
But we had no idea how homesick I would be, being so far away from everybody we knew. It was before the age of computers in homes. These days I can communicate with my sister in the UK using Skype or Facebook.
In Memphis, I wrote letters. Ten pages of letters per day, every day. And in the process of writing letters,
I learnt to write.
My mother kept all the letters I wrote to her and presented them to me in a large folder only last year. The letters stopped after about 18 months, by which time we’d settled into the Memphis community and I was no longer so homesick.
After we came back to Australia, moved houses, had another baby and settled all the kids into school, I went to university and learnt more about writing … and word limits. Writing essay after essay helped me to learn to be more concise, and reading article after article, book after book, I learnt to be more discerning about styles and word choices.
‘Success means getting up once oftener than you fall down’
Being surrounded by toddlers in my work reminds me of their persistence. Toddlers are determined to get to where they want to go. They get up and fall down, and get up … and fall down. They keep getting up, over, and over and over again. I’m sure that whoever it was who said ‘Success means getting up once oftener than you fall down’ had been watching a bunch of babies.
Younger children just want to learn and keep doing, over and over and over again. They don’t seem to care how well they do anything. They just keep at it
But as children get to school age, that determined endeavour seems to disappear in some of them.
Children aged between five and twelve years of age need to become good at something
Chris and I attended an excellent ‘Family Wellness’ course a number of years ago. The kids were dragged along for a couple of sessions, too. A key idea of the course was that children aged between five and twelve years of age need to become good at something.
With a new perspective from the course, I looked at the people I knew who were confident and accomplished in what they did. Whether they were artists, engineers, architects, cooks, farmers or athletes, every one of them had worked hard to be where they are now. Talent had very little to do with their success.
Skyscrapers, bridges, planes and ships are not designed by people who suddenly decide to build them. Great buildings begin with wooden blocks, Lego, meccano and piles of sand being moved from one spot to another. Great artworks begin with painting dots and squiggles, and experimentations with shade and light, correction and starting from scratch, over and over again.
Admittedly, some people are born to be more athletic or musical or artistic than others. But without determined, intentional, frequent practice, people do not become great at something.
Life is about learning; making mistakes, correcting mistakes
I recently heard an interview on the ABC with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, the world-famous singer. She said,
‘You never stop learning … The moment you think you can’t learn anymore, I think you’re dead. Life is about learning; making mistakes, correcting mistakes … If I did two hours a day on vocalese, seven days a week, it would never be enough. Think of the tennis player. How many times has he hit that little ball? It’s a lifestyle, not a job.’
So, armed with our new perspective on parenting 5–12-year-olds, Chris and I looked at our parenting. We were familiar with our kids beginning new ventures: joining a basketball team, learning a musical instrument, playing a game.
They were eager starters.
Everything was new and interesting.
For a while the practice was a novelty, but soon it became a drag with its repetition. Being part of a team was fun, but it also became tiresome when it required early morning starts or missing out on parties or fishing trips.
With our new perspective we began to help them to ‘hang in there!’ We explained the plateau that happens when you learn something new: You learn eagerly and quickly for a while, but then you don’t seem to get any better; the kids in the team won’t throw to you because you keep dropping the ball; the clarinet refuses to give you that particular note and it squeaks precisely when you are trying your hardest; you keep coming ‘second’ every time you play chess.
It’s at the plateau that most people quit.
It’s at the plateau that most people quit. That’s the time that we as parents, coaches and encouragers need to get in there and be the cheer squad.
Forget about ‘constructive criticism’! Research by the Gottman Institute demonstrates that, particularly in children, criticism is not constructive.
Instead, stress the positive:
‘What a great catch! Now, do that again!’
‘See what happens when you do that: It’s strong!’
Describe what you see. Describe how you feel.
Give your children the words to express what they’ve done.
Encourage positive steps and celebrate small successes as well as big ones.
Every positive effort is a success, regardless of its outcome.
A few years ago I was part of a school chaplains’ meeting. One of the chaplains shared a story about a teenager who was constantly in trouble with the police. He kept breaking into cars and stealing them.
When the teenager was asked by the chaplain, ‘Why do you do it?’, his reply was,
‘I just want to be good at something, and that’s all I know’.
Everybody needs to get good at something.
Everybody needs to get good at something. Natural talent and ability play only a small part in a person’s success. For each of us, in everything we do, practice makes better.
One of the mothers of our Year 7 class was teaching her daughter about sex. Every lunch time her daughter gave us a little bit more information. We listened, snickered and stuck our noses up in the air, as Year 7 girls tend to do. We made remarks such as ‘That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. Nobody would ever do that!’
I got the job of going home to ask my mother to validate the latest gory details. After all, my mum was a nurse for three months, so she must have known something about sex. So I’d go home, ask her direct questions and receive direct answers. And I’d report back to the girls.
Whether mum figured out that there was a whole class-full of girls clinging to her every word, I’m not sure. But I’m glad she was open enough to answer questions.
There were no books available to our family back then. Any book that might have been useful in the school-library had been coloured in by a censor. No wonder the kids of the day thought you had to be a doctor or nurse to know about sex.
When our own children were little, things were much different. The impending birth of our son when the kids were 5, 6 and 8 years old gave us a fantastic opportunity to give information in a matter-of-fact way.
We found some books that were helpful, especially our favourite called ‘Who made me?’ by Malcolm and Meryl Doney, and illustrated by Nick Butterworth and Mick Inkpen. ‘Who made me?’ had simple language, cute pictures and analogies that the kids could relate to: bits that fitted together like jigsaw puzzle pieces, and fruit and vegetables that illustrated the size of the baby as it grew inside mum’s tummy.
Sex was described as the most fun game that mummies and daddies can play. This book spoke about sex as a beautiful gift within the context of marriage…Bonus! That gave us the opportunity to place a lock on our bedroom door – and explain to our kids that if the lock was in operation, we might be playing that game so, best for them to leave us alone.
We also had the opportunity to accompany our children to sex-ed nights at school. The guest speakers gave the audience the facts about anatomy and physiology. Then they directed each child to ask their parent who was sitting next to them ‘In your family, what do you call this bit?’
These were informative nights that answered the questions that most children ask, and most parents get embarrassed about. We liked them – apart from the question-time at the end, where we would hope and pray that it was not our child who put up their hand to ask more questions that embarrassed parents.
Our youngest had a different up-bringing to his older siblings, largely because issues that the others were dealing with were often discussed quite freely around the dinner table. The girls were having a discussion about periods one night while I kept trying to change the subject. Acknowledging defeat I asked their little brother, as casually as I could, if he knew what periods were. His answer… ‘When girls get grumpy!’
In our church we have a resource library for parents, available to the whole community. One of the resources available is a cd called ‘The Big Weekend’. Produced by the parenting place.com it is specifically designed for parents and their child (aged about 11 years old) to play in the car’s cd drive while they go for a weekend trip.
‘The Big Weekend’ talks about sex and other issues that kids may face, such as self-esteem, bullying, sexuality and depression.
It’s really engaging and is presented in a way that is non-threatening for either parent or child and invites discussion through its use of humour. Chris took Noah on a ‘Big Weekend’ and they found it great. It enhanced their relationship and gave them some great memories that they can share together.
As our kids faced senior school, each of them came home with stories about class-mates who were pregnant. Too often, these young people were from devoutly religious homes. I’ve read books that tell Christian parents to use a flower as the way to teach their adult child about sex … and that’s it! No other information offered!
If Christian parents can’t recognise that God has given us the gift of sex for our marriage relationship, and pass that on to our kids, who will? If we feel too embarrassed to speak about sex with them, they will find out in other ways – and the results can be traumatic. Knowing about sex and practicing protective behaviours keeps our kids safer, and gives them the vocabulary to talk about it if ever necessary.
‘There’s no such thing as ‘values-free sex education’.
‘There’s no such thing as ‘values-free sex education’*. People usually learn the values that are associated with sex from the context in which they learn about sex. If people learn about sex behind the school shed; in the context of sexual abuse; in a marriage or relationship where sex is expected but not explained; from lobby groups who have their own agendas; or more than likely from television, movies and the internet, they will also take on board the values with which it is presented.
Is what the kids see on MTV the way we would like them to look at their sexuality?
If we as parents teach about sex, we earn the right to teach our values.
If we are too shy to speak about sex, do we have the right to expect our children to adhere to our values. Or do we think that they will know our values by a simple process of osmosis?
In the context of sexuality in our world, future generations will need to be able to communicate clearly and openly about sex among other issues. How can Christians ever be invited to take part in open, frank, respectful conversations about marriage, relationships and sexuality if they are perceived as never talking about sex?
The most powerful mechanism by which we can change that perception is by parents being open with their kids. Parents need to intentionally pass on their values openly, frankly and respectfully, in word and through modelling behaviour.
As parents we have the privilege of being able to influence our children’s attitudes to sex. Whether we are embarrassed or shy doesn’t take away our responsibility to teach our children about sex and the values we have about it. After all, if we don’t, somebody else will.
Previously published as ‘Bye-Bye Birds and Bees’ in The Lutheran magazine, 2012.
After my day in Kakadu yesterday, where my energy output exceeded my input and my willpower, I decided to give the others (Chris and Gabby) a day off. I volunteered to stay behind at our camping ground at Cooinda in Kakadu, while they went to Gumlom Falls, unheeded by me.
Good call, apparently.
That allowed my companions freedom to drive on bumpy roads, climb and swim while I had a personal retreat day.
My challenge: to be still and to simply be.
The car drove off with them in it, only a few moments before I realized I’d left my hat in the boot. That just meant that I must stay in the shade all day.
Aah…but…Chris had left his glasses in the tent.
So, very soon, the wanderers returned, we swapped the pair of glasses for my hat and they departed. Again.
Under the shade of my hat, I gathered my tools together; books, paper, pens, paints, plates, cups, drink, kleenex, esky, hand-bag. And I wandered through the park to find a shady table and bench.
As I strolled past the bistro directly between our tent and the pool, I noticed the queue of between 50 and 60 people lining up for breakfast.
I congratulated myself on our choice to camp, and took a photo to remind myself that camping is a good idea, for the next time I felt that I might prefer a few more luxuries than a tent and a camp-stretcher.
I wandered through the shaded area just beyond the perimeter of the pool fence, found the perfect spot, set out the tools of my trade and began to sit quietly.
Except for the buzz of mosquitoes…
S l o w . . . m o s q u i t o e s…
Julie: Five in one swoop
Then… the mozzies I missed called for reinforcements.
And I remembered the one tool I’d left at the tent…
. . . Insect repellent.
Dilemma 1: Do I need to pack up everything in order to return to the camp-site to retrieve the insect repellent?
I continued to sit for about three seconds, thinking I might be able to sit it out… until more of the mozzie-army invaded.
Julie: Nil – and 53 Mozzie bites.
Decided to leave most things as they were, but just take things of value with me.
Then sprinted (in a Julie-style-sprint) laden with my hand-bag, esky and books, across the park to pick up insect repellent, and Tea Tree Oil for the mozzies which had already got me.
Note to self: Always carry Tea Tree Oil.
Great for Mozzie bites, wasp stings, burns, infections: And especially soothing for bites from bugs that hitch a ride in your trousers while you’re on guided walks around the base of Uluru, and bite when they want to get out.
I returned to my spot.
And I sat.
And I wrote.
Dilemma 2: I get bored easily
Before I knew it, I was up and looking for some distraction. Any distraction.
Usually it’s food.
Today, I got frustrated with myself, knowing that at last I was all set up and had actually written something, yet I needed to wriggle.
I look at my phoned and jumped for joy that I’d been writing without distraction for eighty-three minutes. I got up, wriggled a little bit, and sat down again.
I deemed that I’d earned a coffee break…
The bistro-brekky-bunch had subsided. So I ordered a long-black coffee with soy milk on the side, sat at a bistro bench and sipped while I observed the people around me. But the patrons seemed intent on being peculiarly uninteresting. And the barramundi burger was less than inspiring: Not sure how the cook did that.
I returned to my reclusive table outside of the pool, right next to the playground. where a dad and his three little girls played together for the next hour.
I sat and I sat and I sat. And listened and smiled and wrote and remembered why I wanted to write to inspire parents. The little family was so full of happiness – enjoying each others’ discoveries, helping but not interrupting, encouraging but not demanding, allowing exploration without initiating fear. I wished I could bottle that love and spread it onto pages.
The afternoon grew warmer – and I edged closer to the pool, found a deck-chair and nestled in. Several families moved in close around me. I wondered if they knew they’d be observed.
A mum nearby read several new books to her children. Then she decided to read a book to herself while the three children shared TWO books.
Of course it was Little Mister Three who missed out. And everyone in the whole resort heard about it.
I love to keep bubbles in my hand-bag for such occasions. But with all the travelling we’d done, bubbles had not been on my list of what to pack.
But, as a writer and experimental painter/drawer, I had paper and pencils. So I wandered over to the family.
‘Excuse me, I’m trying to write a book and I need some pictures. Is there anyone here who might like to draw a picture?’
Mister Three’s eyes popped open. He jumped up and shouted.
‘I can. I can.’
Big brother and sister wanted to as well, but the mum said,
‘No, he was first’, so I left Mister Three with my pencil and some paper and went back to my deck-chair.
A few minutes later, little Mister Three was at the foot of my chair.
He held up his picture for me to admire and told me all about it, that his name was Jack, and that he was having a great holiday. And could he do some more, please.
My afternoon progressed with meeting other families who came to enjoy the pool. I talked with mums and dads and kids and aunties. We talked about where we were from, where we were going, places we recommend, things we’d seen, what we’d learnt along the way, and shared any news we’d heard.
‘Do we have a Prime Minister yet?’ I asked a dad, who had grown up in the town next to where I’d grown up.
But while we were talking, my grown-ups returned from their trip, excited at what they’d done, and not-so-secretly thankful that I hadn’t gone with them.
A great day of climbing and swimming for them.
And a day that reminded me of my vocation.
The Sunday school we belonged to in America ran a family day at the local roller-skating rink. So, our family joined in, as usual.
I had just settled into my viewer’s chair when I heard that the races were about to start.
‘OK,’ I thought. ‘This will be fun.’
Then… I saw him.
My son. The four year old with the blonde hair, cheeky grin and eyes that spelt mischief. Jesse, who had his mother wrapped around his little finger.
As I screamed, I felt a very firm but gentle hand grasp my leg. I turned to see Miss Irene the Sunday School director seated next to me. Her hand held my leg and she screamed much more loudly than me
Jesse did not win the race…in fact, he probably spent more time down on his tail than up on his skates. He finished – not shamed, as he would have if he’d listened to me and stopped, but triumphantly, with several hundred people cheering him on.
What a lesson in encouragement.
How many opportunities do we take to encourage others – especially when they are trying something new, or are struggling in their attempts?
As Aussies, our culture tends to knock people who try – and especially those who don’t excel. Even worse, is that we often use sarcasm against others in attempts to make humour. Especially in children, we refer to this as “teasing”. Perhaps we could begin a new culture shift, encouraging instead of telling people ‘Don’t’ or ‘You can’t’.
Encourage one another and build each other up
When babies begin to explore, we can make sure they are in a safe but interesting environment that encourages them to explore – not a sterile one that does not enable them to learn, or one that’s full of breakable objects or things that might hurt them.
When toddlers recognise pictures and symbols we can encourage them with ‘great reading’
When a child runs, skips, jumps or hops, encourage them with ‘Great job!’ instead of ‘Don’t do that… you’ll fall.’
When a child makes a mess in the middle of showing independence, we can coach instead of scold
When a teenager shows interest in taking more initiative we can encourage and give them more responsibility and freedom
When musicians play, we can encourage – and offer help with administration, or babysitters during practice or performances
When pastors preach and speakers teach, we can let them know what we learnt through them
When the neighbourhood kids are rowdy, we can encourage them with a smile and a wave
When our footy team is struggling, we can cheer them on, rather than leave at three-quarter-time
What would happen in Australian homes, schools, churches and workplaces if Aussies chose to encourage, rather than discourage or tease?
What can you do to encourage somebody today?
Question 3: How do you balance your time between being a wife/partner and a mother so that no-one feels they miss out? What about when you have more than one child?
I used to think that I should spend lots of quality time with my husband and each of my kids. It drove the family mad and I nearly went nuts – not to mention, never had time to do anything else – such as housework (Well, that’s today’s excuse).
I discovered that everyone gives and receives Love in different languages. In other words, we connect with each other in different ways. Gary Chapman has identified these as Quality Time, Acts of Service, Words of Affirmation, Touch, and Gifts.
My preferred method of connection is to spend quality time with someone, or, in their absence, make them something or spend lots of time thinking about them. I even go shopping for hours by myself in order to find the perfect gift for them, just to spend quality time with them, even though they’re not with me, and sometimes I don’t purchase anything.
However, my husband does things to show me he loves me; the housework, cooking, gardening and fixing things. My daughter writes letters and notes. My son gives gifts…to everyone. My other daughter loves to be hugged. And our youngest? We haven’t quite figured that one out yet – probably because with the five love languages covered in our house, he is never lacking in any of them.
Diagnosis: A waste of time?
I used to go around and ‘diagnose’ everyone else’s love language. That wasn’t particularly conducive to relationship building.
Then someone reminded me that we generally operate in our own love language. However, if we consciously operate in all five, we can cover all bases, and it conserves our time and effort. It means that as mothers, we need not spread ourselves so thinly that someone misses out. And we don’t need to miss out on being able to top up our own energy tank.
For example, in preparing a meal in the evening I can incorporate all five love languages; I do something in service for my husband, I can spend time with whomever is in the kitchen, give a meal to my son, have a hug with my daughter or give her a back rub while something’s cooking, and use encouraging words to my other daughter. All bases covered: Everyone feeling loved in their own language, without requiring five times the amount of energy from me.
There’s also a great question that I was taught and I’ve asked,
If the children asked for something, the answer was,
If the children reached out to touch something, they were reprimanded with a no!
If they stepped one metre outside of their mother’s reach — in the supermarket, in the shopping mall, in the playground — they were called back …
Even if Mum and Dad wanted something for themselves, they thought the ‘godly’ answer was no.
Where on earth Mum and Dad learnt this, they weren’t sure. They’d heard it on the radio in Southern USA. They’d read it in books about raising ‘godly’ children, and they’d certainly heard it over and over again from several older members of the community who had observed the three-year-old son’s mischief. Those people loudly disapproved and proclaimed his behaviour was due to a ‘lack of discipline’.
More often than not, that statement sounded something like: ‘What that child needs is a good smack!’
Smacks did not solve the problem.
It’s not entirely surprising that the joy of parenting had gone from the daily lives of this family.
The children each expressed in their own way that life was not as it should be. The four-year-old took control of everything — and everybody. The three-year-old bounced off walls and grabbed attention any way he could. The baby became an expert tantrum-thrower.
Mum appeared calm on the outside — most of the time — but on the inside she was screaming, stressed out and miserable.
Dad, devoted and meticulous, attended to all the needs that Mum did not have the energy or motivation for. His life revolved around working at his place of employment, then coming home to pick up everything that hadn’t been done in the home all day, every day.
If anybody had asked him, he may have answered that he could not remember the last time he had laughed with his family.
Thank God, the family had chosen a local church where they felt they would be cared for. It took a year or two, but the family was nurtured and loved by that congregation. The congregation tolerated the boisterous activities of the three-year-old boy and provided care for the one-year-old baby while Mum sang in the choir. The eldest was placed in a loving Sunday school class. And the whole family attended frequent Sunday school family days.
One day the Sunday school director, Miss Irene, (who also happened to be the three-year-old’s preschool teacher) took the mother aside and asked in her deepest, sweetest Southern USA accent,
‘Mizz Julie, is there a reason you never say yes to your children?’
That question was one of those moments that changed our family’s life path.
That day, when preschool ended, for the first time I squatted down and held my arms out as wide as I could, and my children came running. I’m glad they knew what to do — because it was new to me! But it restored that smile that had gone missing.
From then on, at every possible opportunity, I would watch people like Miss Irene in action — in the preschool, in the playground, in the supermarket, in the classroom. And then I’d go home and practise.
I didn’t make it obvious to anybody else what I was doing. I certainly did not ask questions. But I took everything in, and our house gradually became a Yes House.
Miss Irene and her helpers organised a parenting course — a video with Gary Chapman (author of The Five Love Languages) and Ross Campbell (author of How to Really Love your Children). While we watched a video and had discussion, Miss Irene and her helpers fed pizza to our kids and kept them occupied in the Sunday school classrooms.
So we became part of a group of parents who were also separated from their own parents. We formed our own little community to encourage, laugh and support each other.
If Miss Irene had criticised what I was doing wrong, I would probably have got in a huff and run off in the opposite direction.
Instead, she prayerfully, lovingly and gently came alongside me and trained me to love my children and my husband.
She invited me to pick up the children early from preschool and let me sit in the playground to observe — and to gradually learn how to join the children in their play, allowing them to sort out minor quibbles by themselves but intervening when necessary.
She taught me to sit with children and debrief with them after they’d had a moment or two of ‘thinking time’.
She taught me two very concise but brilliant rules which we were able to adapt to our home rules: ‘Please be gentle with the people here. Please be gentle with the things here.’
But most importantly, she taught me how to love in a very real way — unconditionally, practically, positively and with an element of fun.
Eighteen years later, our kids have grown into beautiful young adults — and our house is definitely a Yes House. Ironically, for a few years I was employed to stand alongside other parents to encourage them — just as I was mentored through that process all those years ago — and to facilitate parenting courses. And, for years, I wrote a column about family life called ‘Heart and Home’, in The Lutheranmagazine in Australia.
Frequently I am asked about smacking, discipline and many other hot topics. But among the most common comments I receive is,
‘It’s a shame that the parents who really need it won’t come to these courses’.
I reply that every family needs community.
Every family needs to know that they are not alone and that there are some tricks that can make parenting easier and even enjoyable.
As far as those parents who don’t come to the courses … there is plenty of evidence that says that for every family that goes to a course or receives parenting help, another 20 families in that community benefit.
Perhaps other families also watch other parents in supermarkets and playgrounds — just like I did!
First published in ‘The Lutheran’ , 2011, July edition. The Lutheran
Consider that ‘career’ means a pathway through life
and being a mother is great professional development
for every job in the whole world (and one day, someone will appreciate it!)
Be gentle: on yourself, on your kids, on your partner
and even on those folk who offer their advice, whether or not you asked them for it.
I’ve been a mother for 26+ years.
When I look back at how I went, let’s just say that I’m so glad that others stepped in to show me how to do it better, and, eventually, how to enjoy it.
If (when) I was stressed, it was usually because I was trying to fulfill what I thought were the world’s expectations of me.
When I wasn’t comparing what I was doing as a mum, I seemed to be using charts and measurements to compare my children with other children, or to what someone in a lab had figured my child ‘should’ be doing, or eating, or pooping.
Of course there were illnesses, teeth, (moving overseas didn’t help), school issues, things that got stuck up noses, bumps, rashes, stitches, ambulances and all the things that happen with living in busy houses with different people and different needs.
But, if I was less focused on my unrealistic expectations of myself, and was able to drop the comparison game, I believe much of my energy would have been better used on the kids – and life would have been more enjoyable for all of us.
If I was able to slow down to be just a bit quicker than my children, perhaps I wouldn’t have been as tired.
Perhaps if I wasn’t trying to manage every other person I met on the street, or in church, or at pre-school, I might have had more time to get down and enjoy my kids.
Perhaps if I hadn’t been so caught up in trying to gain the approval of everyone, and instead, learnt to watch and listen to my kids,
I might have had more of an idea of what they needed,
and would have been able to enjoy being a mum much sooner.
I know that if I’d trusted that God loved my kids even more than I loved them, life would have been a whole lot simpler.
It’s much easier to see all that in hind-sight.
If there was one piece of information that I could give myself:
To me, it seems that mothers of small children are often intent on saving the whole world,
On one particularly frightful worst-mother morning, I threw a particularly frightful tantrum because the family had seemingly forgotten my birthday. Though there had been some efforts to help me to celebrate—one out of the four of the kids had made me a home-made card, and my husband had gone shopping at 10-minutes-before-closing time the night before—I remember feeling particularly unimpressed by the lack of thought.
It seemed I was being taken for granted.
I also remember my performance – to my shame.
But on the following Mother’s Day, the family made up for the previous un-celebration. I was smothered in flowers, gifts, cards and hugs, and the obligatory, celebratory ‘Stacks On!’ where all five of the other members of the family piled on top of me.
I was required to stay in bed where I received a cooked breakfast followed by coffee, the paper and a puzzle book. Bliss! Lunch was served eventually, complete with Oysters Kilpatrick and Prawns. I don’t remember the rest of the menu, but I do remember how I felt…like I was the most important mother in the world.
I wanted to write something wonderful and inspiring about mothers in preparation for Mother’s Day – a definitive article on mothers. But the story of my tantrum reminded me that I am probably the least qualified of all to write such an article.
So I looked for help.
I asked my friends what I should write about mothers, but they raised more questions than answers:
How do we define ‘mother’? Who is a mother? Is ‘mother’ a job description? Are all mothers female? Why are mothers from different generations so tough on each other? Does becoming a mother make one weaker or stronger?
I wanted to make it a light-hearted article so people might want to read it, but realised I needed to be sensitive to the grief that surrounds motherhood.
I wanted to remind people not to take their mothers for granted, but remembered that many who will read this have lost their mother.
I wanted to remember those who have yearned to be a mother but will never hold their child in their arms. And those mothers who have said their final good-bye to their children.
The harder I tried, the more I was reminded that motherhood cannot be restricted to a thousand words.
I looked to the bible for what it said about mothers. Though there are plenty of examples of godly mothers, there are no specific instructions.
Mothers such as Hannah and Moses’s mother are upheld as examples of women who nurtured future leaders in their homes. The bible gives specific instructions to fathers, but talks only of the mother’s role as nurturer and carer, and that she needs to be respected, honoured and protected in that role.
Mothers have a tough gig. Always have had, always will have, I suppose. Perhaps that is the pain to which God was referring when Eve sinned – not the pain of child-birth which everyone is terrified of but soon passes from memory. But the pain that Simeon prophesied to Mary: ‘the sword that will pierce your soul’ (Luke 2:35); the solitude of becoming a mother – giving everything she has, to bring her child into life; having to stand up for what she believes is the best thing for her child, despite the pressures of outside observers and her own heart breaking.
I read a book in which an author called his mother ‘a quitter’. She was an accomplished pianist, he said, but she had a whole house full of unfinished projects. I wondered how he became ‘successful’. His mother’s work was obviously invisible to him. If he had looked at her through eyes of love instead of criticism, he would have understood that a mother’s life happens in seasons rather than schedules. He would have seen her as ‘the one who dropped whatever she was doing for herself, for the good of those she loved’.
A few weeks ago, I was wandering in our local shopping mall and saw a family struggle.
‘What are you looking at?’ the mother snarled at me. I concentrated on the blank, non-judgmental look on my face. Two of her three children were screaming: one because she’d been hit by her big brother, the other because his mother had hit him.
One day I’m going to get in big trouble for doing this, I thought as I made the decision to walk toward this screaming family, instead of away from them. She watched me come close to her and we both stared at each other in an uncomfortable space.
God. Words, please? I prayed.
At last, I broke the silence between us.
‘This mother-thing is tricky isn’t it?’
That’s all I said. But a dam full of what she had been holding inside just burst out in a tidal wave of words. She told me about what had been happening in her home: why the kids had been fighting, why they were crying now, how she felt about it, that she didn’t know what she was going to do about it, could I hold something while she picked up the stuff that she’d dropped, how life was so tough at the moment, how she loved her kids but was struggling especially with her son’s behaviour…
While she talked and I listened, she packed up all the bags around her, organised herself, placed the older kids either side of the stroller and began to push. We walked together for 100 metres until she stopped.
She looked at me and she smiled.
‘It’s just a stage. It’ll pass. Thanks.’ she said and we headed off in different directions.
I smiled back, knowing that though I could not walk in her feet, for a few short moments I had walked beside her.
Originally published in The Lutheran magazine, 2014, May edition.
How do you resolve conflicts in different parenting styles between yourself and your partner? e.g. where one parent is stricter than the other
According to The Gottman Institute, in every successful relationship most (69%) of the conflicts are unresolvable*.
Some of those conflicts might be about inconsequential things, such as our favourite flavour of ice-cream. But many of the unresolvable issues are more important than our taste buds. Knowing they’re unresolvable helps us to manage them, rather than waste our time and energy arguing about them.
What about our attitude and parenting style in bringing up the kids?
I’m an ex-nurse and used to bandage the wounds of other people’s adventurous kids who ended up in the Children’s Hospital Emergency Department. So my heart sinks to the pit of my stomach when I see a child anywhere near where they might possibly fall. I am a scaredy-cat. I would happily ban trampolines and all kinds of other adventures – but there wouldn’t be much fun left.
DH (dear husband) grew up climbing trees, rambling over rocks and yabbying in dams and creeks. He has several scars which show that many wounds heal by themselves, eventually.
He encourages climbing – with the theory that if you let them climb, as long as they know how to climb down, they’re safer if you leave them to it than if you make a fuss.
Our way around that was for me to stay well away from the adventurous parts of playgrounds – so the children couldn’t sense my fear. Chris would be in charge of the kids in playgrounds. And I left him to it. It meant that my kids learnt to climb, and jump, and do normal kid things without my unfounded fear.And the kids knew that if he ever said ‘That’s enough!’ their lives were in mortal danger.
That’s pretty much how we still handle situations on which we disagree .
We go on the side of the person with the most factual knowledge or experience about a situation:
Anything requiring medical or nursing care, he leaves to me.
Anything microbial i.e. what’s safe to eat that we find in the back of the fridge, we leave to him.
Anything we’re not sure about, we still err on the side of caution – unless it looks like fun and we feel that it can’t do too much damage.
Interestingly, the issues we used to find most difficult, we can’t even remember now.
Perhaps our ways aren’t what every couple would choose. But that’s the beauty of families. We’re all different.
When it came to our natural parenting styles, we’re opposite. But we discovered the Parent-Coach style, through ‘Toolbox Parenting Groups’ from The Parenting Place. Both of us could work together on that, with the same goal in mind.
Doing whichever courses came our way, about relationships and parenting, we learnt new tactics and decided together which ones we didn’t think would work for us, and happily tried ones that sounded hopeful.
We made time with each other a priority. When the children were small, we hired a student once a week to mind the kids while we went on a date. Later, when the kids were at school, we had a regular Wednesday morning ‘date’ at a coffee shop next to the bus stop.
Making time for each other helped us to understand how we were travelling, and what made us react and respond to our kids and each other in different circumstances. We could talk things over when not in crisis mode, and often made decisions about the kids in semi-relaxed circumstances. It really helped us with our communication during crisis moments that inevitably have happened.
And our parenting decisions are guided by our family values. More about that in the article about family values – but, in summary, when we have worked out together what are the most important values to our family, all sorts of decisions are much easier to make.
*(John Gottman & Julie Schwartz Gottman, 2014 Bridging the Couple Chasm: Gottman Couples Therapy: A Research-Based Approach)