Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A House United

It wasn’t something we’d discussed prior to our engagement. Troy and I got married the summer I graduated from college and I was pregnant within the year. I hadn’t had time to establish a career or create for myself some adult standard of living complete with long- term goals or a hard earned graduate degree before motherhood descended upon me. We both assumed that I’d be the one to stay home and raise our baby.

We couldn’t be more traditional in our roles, my husband and I. I cook and clean, wash the clothes and teach our children. Troy mows the lawn, pays the bills and wears a tie and sports coat to his job in the city. I’ve never resented this arrangement because, truth be told, the idea of full-time employment in an office building where the hours are set in stone is very, very unappealing to me. Sure I’ve broken down, more times than I can count, over the rigors and stressors of stay-at-home motherhood but never have I been tempted to seek out an alternative involving me earning our income, carrying the weight of providing for us financially on my shoulders. And I’m pretty darn sure that Troy has no ill-conceived misconceptions regarding the challenges I come up against daily while managing schedules, meals, emotions and toys that seem to multiply and cram themselves under beds and between couch cushions. Over the years, I’ve settled in, taking ownership of my position as the matriarch. To my children, I am comfort, normalcy, security wrapped in skin. Nothing unnerves my three-year-old like the sight of me wearing a jacket and carrying car keys, on my way to somewhere, anywhere, without her.

This past October, I had the extraordinary opportunity to reunite with my four best friends from college on a weekend wine tasting excursion to Michigan. I hardly need explain to you why I had looked forward to it for months. But if you happen to be a mother, you might also understand the twinge of secret apprehension that dampened slightly my excitement at leaving my family for a “girls only” adventure. "Are you sure you'll be ok?" I had asked him more than once and each time Troy replied, "yes," using the same expression and tone my son, Benji, might employ if I asked him was he certain the Force was stronger than the dark side or if the Chicago Bears was still his favorite football team. Troy is solid as a rock and not easily intimidated, but this I thought was different - four kids, our four kids, were a whole lot to handle and maybe he was being just a tad bit naive, forgetting how Mary melts down when she's tired and Benjamin wanders off if you turn your back for even a second.

As I waved goodbye, I begged God to protect them. I expected little, really - that they'd "get through it," probably, but would be awfully glad to see me upon my return."Have a good time!" Troy told me, which I was so grateful for because all it would have taken to negate my joy was a look of resentment. Mothers, or maybe it’s just me, tend to think of themselves as the glue holding everything and everyone together. My husband could do a fine job, but of course I'd always, in general, do better when it came to nurturing the children and managing our home. Had I taught him all he needed to know to ensure those couple of days without my hovering presence would be a success for them, for me, for everyone?

When we pulled up to my house all rested and restored, I found Priscilla, Ben, and Elijah jumping, laughing, and rolling in a leaf pile. Troy sauntered up quite calm-like and hugged me. There were lots of squeals and kisses, partly (or mostly) because of the brightly wrapped packages in a bag I was carrying with the words, Oh My Darling Toy Store printed boldly on the side of it. "Whadjyou bring us? Whaydjyou bring us?" they were dying to know. After a whirlwind half hour of thanking my friends profusely for such a wonderful, wonderful time, handing out souvenirs, and emptying my duffel bag, I finally cornered Troy and started questioning him about how everything had gone in my absence. "Fine," he answered, keeping consistent with his usual minimalist approach to my wifely interrogations. "What did you do?" I pressed on out of curiosity. "Oh, let's see," he tried to remember, "...this morning we got the emissions test done on the car, then we went to the DMV, then Ace Hardware, then out for pizza. After lunch, I put Mary down for a nap, we cleaned up the yard and then did our inside chores."

"All of those things?! In one day?!"

The very idea of it made me exhausted. That kind of errand running required multiple snacks, water bottles, and some extra strength Tylenol, items I was certain Troy had not even thought about packing. "How did they do?" I winced, figuring Mary had most likely screamed, Elijah had pouted out of boredom, Priscilla had complained of hunger and Benjamin...well, who knows what? With Ben anything, literally anything can happen. Priscilla, overhearing our conversation, interrupted me."Mommy!" she beamed, "the lady at the car place told daddy we were good kids!"
"Is that true?" I asked. "Yep," My husband answered. "She said she was impressed by how cooperative and quiet my children were, just sitting there reading their books. They did great." I looked around, then, and it dawned on me for the first time that nothing had exploded. No one was bandaged up or clamoring for my attention. When Mary walked by, five seconds later, Troy said, "It's time to get your jammies on, baby." And so - get this- she totally went right upstairs and got dressed in her pajamas...all by HERSELF.

Troy, I suddenly realized, assumed they could; I assume they can’t and because of that, I end up, much of time, over-assisting and ultimately feeding their habit of whining, and surrendering when something is difficult. My very competent spouse opened my eyes to a mindset I was stubbornly clinging on to and which was hindering me as a mom. I (gasp!) discovered something helpful and important that I could learn from him in the parenting department: If I insist on aiming low, I shouldn’t be shocked when my kids choose not to surpass my menial expectations.

I had gotten myself into a rut, maternally speaking, but busyness and misplaced confidence in my ability to tackle solely all discipline and character issues were preventing me from switching up my tactics, thinking outside of the box. I could have avoided some frustration by noticing sooner that Troy was more than just a wingman; we are co-pilots, both necessary, providing unique but equally valuable influences on Elijah, Priscilla, Benjamin and Mary. It is hard, as a mom, but ultimately beneficial for a marriage and a family to surrender control in exchange for open-mindedness and respect for a partner’s well-intentioned differing point of view or priorities.

Even after eleven years, my relationship with Troy is still unfolding. Marriage is such a mystery, so alive with possibilities, so effective at stretching, humbling, improving me as a person when we work hard at staying connected and keeping Christ and His Church as the foundation of our commitment to one another. It requires a lot of tongue biting, apologizing and forgiving but the rewards are both fulfilling and eternal. Take it for granted, and a marriage will slowly but surely begin to unravel, to weaken from starvation and neglect. I am grateful for the like-minded women in my life who have encouraged me to continue trying and loving and learning by their sacrificial efforts to keep their own marriages healthy and their souls attentive to opportunities for continuous growth. Just recently, I read the following on my sister-in-law’s blog site and Paige has generously given me permission to share her honest (and very relatable) reflections with you here:

This is one of my favorite pictures of Bobby - for several reasons. First, I love that smile. It's really what first attracted me to him - I told him it was his eyes - and they are beautiful - but really it was that smile: a little crooked, full of confidence, just about to emit something unexpectedly hilarious.

In college he was usually the center of things - so full of energy, life and witty remarks that people just wanted to be near him.In this picture, my daughters and my husband look like triplets (which makes me chuckle in and of itself) but to see the three of them together like that - so happy, natural, and united - it makes me see the past differently.

It's just that I was so hard on Bobby during the "baby stage." I wanted and expected him to have the exact same skill set I did - I, a woman who bore the children, who was the oldest of six kids, who baby-sat nearly every day from age 12 to age 21 and then went on to become an elementary school counselor - I expected him to be right there with me - interpreting our babies' cries and anticipating their every need (in addition to understanding mine). No wonder his transition to parenthood was a little rocky! I never allowed him to transition (or myself, for that matter).

I know my husband is a great father, now. I am reminded of this by my two-year-old daughter who says incessantly, "I need my DADA." And by my four year old who reminds us all how big and strong Daddy's calf muscles are (that's a huge compliment in her world, by the way).

If only I could have seen ahead a little - maybe I would have been a little kinder; a little more patient. Looking at this picture I see though, how even then - in the midst of baby time - Bobby was an amazing father. My girls look so happy and safe - as though they are in the best place of all, their Daddy's arms.

More than a dishwasher loaded perfectly with all the utensils facing the exact same direction, more than my kid’s leaving the house with smooth hair, brushed teeth and in a tastefully coordinated outfit, more than a “do what I want, how I want, when I want it” carbon copy of myself kind of spouse, I want an involved and devoted father whose not afraid to step in and get his hands dirty in the invigorating messiness of family life - even if his methods might diverge from my own.

Nothing discourages participation like scrutinization and nit-picky criticisms. Few skills are as valuable or worth the diligence and discipline required to pass them down to our children and grandchildren as the ability to compromise and communicate courteously. A house divided against itself, said Abraham Lincoln in 1858 in reference to the intensifying discord between Southerners and Northerners, cannot stand. This is no less true today or less applicable to the familial unit. And so I pray, like I always do when selflessness is required, for the determination to treat my husband as I would like to be treated for the sake of our intimacy with one another, unification with our children, and above all else for the obtainment of my salvation. Yes, oh yes, Christ is here, here, in our midst, in our marriages, in the ordinary moments and exchanges fusing together to comprise a lifetime, and ever shall be.

The above article can be found in the current edition (Winter 2009) of The Handmaiden. Click HERE to order a subscription!

Monday, February 09, 2009


For a long while, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It wasn’t the exhaustion or sudden loss of freedom per se; I was sure that eventually time and experience would remedy (or at least numb) the ill effects of those violent intrusions on my health and emotions. When the claustrophobia and hormonally charged periods of baby blueness came and went and came again those first several months, I knew deep down in my gut that they were not the cause, not the root anyway, of my discontentment either. I wanted to be a mom. I was committed wholeheartedly to this invaluable opportunity to raise and nurture my children. No matter how hard I tried, however, to line up my thought life with my set in stone convictions regarding the sacredness of parenthood, I couldn’t make one consistently reflect the other. In my mind, bouts of resentment, impatience, and insecurity were obviously signs of failure – were simply incompatible with good and prayerful parenting. What was dampening my experience as a mother (aha! I finally figured it out!) was that impossibly wide chasm between my ideals and capabilities. My main objective in life, then, became to cross it.

To combat my incompetence I sought voraciously the advice of others. I positive disciplined, sleep trained and chore charted my way to success – success that would last a week or so before I’d lose steam and give up, and then agonize over my laziness? my selfishness? my flightiness? To be honest, I didn’t know what exactly was wrong with me! Somewhere there was a key that could unlock that mystical secret of maternal satisfaction and until I found it, I would dart all over the place testing theories and hypotheses claiming posession of precisely what I was longing for. Out there lay my happiness, perfection and fulfillment. I was always but an article or surefire tip away from arriving at that mommy plateau from which everything runs smoothly and where everyone, parents and kids alike, respond pleasantly and appropriately from that point forward to life’s challenges.

In the midst of a never ending voyage toward an ambiguous and elusive finish line, I began to open up, out of frustration, to my fellow mom friends. What I discovered repeatedly, surprisingly enough, was that each of us was struggling with our own unique self-doubts. Each of us was worn out from trying to live up to our impeccable standards. Each of us was concerned that our children were abnormally something – shy, aggressive, willful, behind in development, you name it. It also began to dawn on me, however, that those conversations so honest and yet seemingly unproductive in which I vented to a supportive and empathetic peer provided comfort unlike any how-to manual I had ever combed through for answers. Feeling part of something bigger than the little lonely world I was dwelling in and worrying in and yet would sacrifice anything to stay in, brought me real and sustained peace. In apartments, houses and condos around the globe were women and men just like me – parents who adored their kids, parents whose families were flawed, parents inching their way toward enlightenment two steps forward and one step backward at a time.

Several years ago I got an idea in my head. I wanted to chronicle my experience as a new mom coming to terms with the actualities of her role. I wanted to state clearly and candidly the misconceptions holding me back from taking ownership of my position as the mother of these distinct children placed divinely in my care. I desired to scream from the pages of a book not, “Here is how you do it!” but rather, “You, my friend, are not alone!” I am abundantly thankful for Conciliar Press and for their willingness to take a chance on me. With Conciliar, I was able to freely and thoroughly examine motherhood in light of the Orthodox Christianity I had converted to. It was rigorous work, writing with four small children on my lap and at my feet, staying up later than I should to finish just one more thought, one more paragraph. It was (and still is) scary, I’ll admit it, to become so vulnerable through the sharing of my faults and fears. But bigger than the challenges were the revelations! I was floored to find out how applicable and transforming are the teachings of the ancient Church to modern day men and women in the throes of disciplining, praying for, and doting on their children.

It is finished; I can scarcely believe it! Close to Home: One Orthodox Mother’s Quest for Patience, Peace and Perseverance is now available to pre-order at Conciliar’s website. I am honored for this chance to reveal how my numerous mistakes and disappointments, a sense of community, and the teachings of Jesus as revealed through the mysteries of His Church, are enabling me to focus less on what I can’t be or do and more on what God can. I want to take this opportunity to thank you, all of you who have listened to these podcasts and read my blogs and who have inspired me to wake up each morning and try all over again to be a little more like Christ than the day before. Let us continue pursuing the unearthly gratification that comes from serving one another, uplifting one another – from loving sacrificially in the name of the Holy Trinity our spouses, sons and daughters, siblings, parents and neighbors.