Thanks to the Dads

To all the dads I know: may your day be wonderful and full of the good stuff: laughter, and words that touch the heart, hugs, and the moments that become snapshots in memory. The years fly by, but the good stuff somehow lasts, photos of the mind that take us back, connecting through time and distance.

I have those mental snapshots of my grandfathers, my dad, father-in-law, my husband, brothers, uncles, son-in-law. Watching these men over the years as they fathered…some in more traditional ways, others more hands on and involved…I’ve seen a breadth of styles and relationships. Above all, I appreciate their commitment and integrity.  Just like me as a young mom, I’m quite sure they were making it up on the fly, figuring out how to be a dad in the midst of all the other demands life was throwing. Does anyone have the luxury of learning to parent at leisure?

There are a lot of words of wisdom that fly around on these days, and anyone can learn from the example of others. But words fall away in the face of actions. It is the actions of these men that I reflect on today. Watching them interact, sometimes at the high points of life, others in the valleys, I see men who were able to connect with their kids, be there when it counted, when the going was rough. I see men who have been quiet heroes to their families, not perfect, but trying. I see men who stayed, fathers who lived up to the name.

I see dads, and I see kids…young ones, adults, and everything in between…who have relationships. And they’re good ones. Thank you to these men, the men of my family.

But more broadly, thanks to the men everywhere who are fathers, and who make a difference, not just in the lives of their children, but in the lives of all of us. Fathers doing a good job make all of us stronger, and better, and healthier.

Enjoy your day, and celebrate the good stuff. And feel proud: you’re doing your job, you’re making a difference. And we love you for it.

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PB and Riley

 

 

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Too blind to see

I was too blind to see that you were too deaf to hear me.

A few weeks ago I had a long weekend with my son in Denver. It was an overdue visit, and I treasured the time to connect in person. Although we keep a steady stream of texts and calls going, nothing takes the place of face to face.

I read a quote a few weeks back…a self-professed quote-a-holic, these things catch my eye and lodge in my mind….

“If you had an essentially happy childhood, that tends to dwell with you.”     Tracy Kidder

Motherhood was a joy to me, and I’ve written about that. I took pride in that role; not that I thought I was perfect, but I thought I was good. I was passionate about it. I loved my kids. And I was good at mothering, in many ways. I did so much for them and with them. But with this quote newly echoing in my thoughts, I asked Alex, sitting across from him in the midst of a light hearted conversation if he felt his childhood had been happy. I knew how I would characterize it.

Imagine my surprise, my dismay, when he answered no. When he said he had been bullied through much of his elementary school years, and often felt lonely. He never told me that before, and I never saw, never guessed. It never came out in parent/teacher conferences or any time through the years he was a kid at home. When I asked him why he never came to me with this, he just said he didn’t think I could help. Didn’t think his teachers could help. My instinctive response was of course I could have helped, could have changed that. But maybe with the vision of childhood, he had believed that if he made a fuss, called attention to the bullying, it would only get worse when adult eyes weren’t looking. And of course that’s when bullying happens.

Imagine the shift in my perception. Imagine my heart breaking listening to his words, telling me very calmly, and just because I asked if he had been happy as a kid.

In many ways he was a highly verbal child; as I used to say, he could talk to a post. We often had long conversations, and he never seemed withdrawn. Yet he was also a self-entertainer, spending a lot of time playing video games and building with his Lego sets. He had a few friends, kids that seemed, like he often did, a little different from the crowd.

By the time he was in 7th grade, he was coming home from school angry, and I did see that. We pulled him out of public school at the semester break, and after briefly trying a private school or two, we opted for home schooling. I cut my hours at work to spend time with him and the curriculum we chose. For the next couple of years the circle was Alex, family, youth group, soccer, and a few friends he kept from elementary school.

By the time he entered high school, in a new public school setting, he seemed to have outgrown the anger, in large part, and I put it down to the difficult transition that a lot of middle-school kids face…that most awkward time of life when you’re neither child nor adult, big or little. I thought the issues he had with school stemmed from the fact that he wasn’t really a student at heart, even though he was smart.

I noticed that he often gravitated to kids that were on the fringe, that seemed left out. And I worried a little about that. Was he not fitting in? But he also seemed popular enough, seemed well liked. I thought it was just Alex.

During our heart-to-heart a few weeks ago, he told me he had chosen to befriend the kids who were left out because he had felt that way too. He decided he could be a victim or a hero, and he chose to be a hero. I know he doesn’t trumpet his own acts of kindness because the ones I know of are the ones I discover in a round-about way. He loans money he can scarcely do without; he reaches out to people who need a friend. He’s a gentleman with an old-fashioned sense of courtesy that I love to see. He helps the lost and the old.

He’s dating again, a girl that he first met in church youth group. He first connected with her in high school because she was new to the group, and he thought she could use a friend. Now he’s the one who’s new in town, returning after six years away. And she reached out to him.

I think about things I hear…kids who take their lives because of bullying. Kids who get into substance abuse or join gangs to fit in. Kids from homes without love, without supervision. And kids from homes like ours, where the parents thought they were watching for danger, doing a good job, listening, seeing. Sometimes when you read about these kids, these children of other people, you wonder…how did this happen? Where were the parents? And without meaning to, without intentionally assigning blame, I’ve done exactly that. Even knowing that parenting is perilous and not for the faint of heart, I’ve wondered. Well, now I know, at least in part. I know bullying can happen without visible signs. Or maybe I was just blind because I thought it wouldn’t happen to my child, in our little neighborhood school, in an upscale suburb. And maybe that was the biggest miss of all…I didn’t think it could happen. I never even thought to ask if Alex’s school issues could be related to bullying. I thought it was all academic.

Thank God, we didn’t have to learn about this through tragedy. I feel sadness enough about the impact of this issue on Alex’s life. I can’t sort out what those impacts have been. But the mom in me wants to go back and relive those years…dig deeper, question the teachers…what were they seeing? why weren’t they seeing it? be more aggressive. Maybe if I had been more aware, a lot of things would be different.

When I voiced that…my gut reaction that I had failed at the most basic role of parenting, to protect the child, Alex disagreed. He’s not holding a grudge, not bemoaning his childhood. He says we taught him how to be an adult, and that was the important job we had to do. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to see it that way. That’s a part of it, but to my mom’s heart, the role of protector is still the first priority, especially in light of what I know now.

Bullying can take many forms, and obviously some kids are more affected by it than others. I know awareness has grown, and maybe there’s more help available for kids today than even a few years ago. If this post can help even one parent think about what they may be missing, ask questions, dig deeper, then some good will have come from Alex’s experience. And knowing him, he would probably think helping someone else is reward enough.

Everyone is a product of the mix of life…the good, bad, the intentional and the accidents. I know that, and I know that even if I could have protected Alex’s childhood from any scars, adulthood would bring experiences I couldn’t shield him from. But that doesn’t stop me from wishing I could have a redo. I am thankful that Alex is who he is. And I am humble. I know, all over again, that I can’t understand someone else’s situation without knowing their story. Reminds me that I need to give grace when I don’t understand. Maybe there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye. And I need to receive grace when I make mistakes. Maybe, in spite of my best efforts, I’m missing something important. In spite of my good intentions, I’m falling short.

Thank God for grace. Thank God for Alex, teaching me, forgiving my failures as a mom, and finding the good.

Riley’s table

Riley, two-year-old princess and budding dictator, came to visit at Thanksgiving, bringing her parents along. Believe me, a two-year-old is always the star of the show, whatever the personality or parenting style may be. This is not to say that she is intentionally allowed to run wild, or take over…there’s a lot of effort going into training, molding, shaping, squashing, and occasionally silencing the little angel. I say all of this with a smile on my face and a wealth of love in my heart. She is a joy, and a bundle of energy, and a two-year-old. I know, I already said that…but it bears repeating.

So on her visit to Gram and PB’s house…she had been to Alaska once before, when she was about eight months, but she wasn’t really mobile yet, so that hardly counts…she explored a bit…got comfy with all the rooms and beds and spaces under the breakfast bench in the kitchen, and craftily hid small toys in places that would take me months to discover. I like to think that we’ll be fully recovered before her next trip.

Her most lasting gift, other than the photos we took, was a small inscription on my pine coffee table. Now, I’ve had this table and some matching pieces since the early 90s…these are classic, traditional Southern-Living-look pieces that have served me well, and migrated about the country from Michigan to Colorado to Alaska with scarcely a mark. But now, the coffee table has met Riley.

On the afternoon of Thanksgiving, I was doing something in the kitchen (my native habitat), when I heard an outburst of “NO RILEY, DON’T DO THAT!” coming from the living room. I rushed in to see if she was ok…not really concerned about anything but her…and saw that she had very thoughtfully been signing the coffee table with a blue ball point pen. This is her handiwork:

Riley’s signature

And although I immediately (truly!) recognized that it was her toddler attempt to leave a memento of her stay, and I also (immediately!) realized that the table just grew in value to me…after all, it was only valuable to me anyway…I must admit, I did give it a good polishing with a variety of products, hoping to at least remove the blue from the marks…I knew those were carved to last.

Well, I didn’t get the blue out, and now, as I look across the surface, that’s pretty much all I see anymore. But it’s growing on me. I’ve already decided that Riley will inherit this piece…whatever else I have to leave to her, she’s getting this table. It’s solid, and it’s hers. She put her stamp on it. And I’m ok with that.

Joking aside, it’s really a great metaphor for the experience of parenting (and now grand-parenting) in general…These little people mark on your heart, little knowing or understanding that they’re leaving a permanent imprint of themselves in your life. Some marks are more on the order of medals, others are definitely scars. But the surface and the marks are unique to the parent and child. (Or grandparent…I keep forgetting I’m in the second category now.) I’ll never look at my coffee table without a reminder of the little girl who signed it. And truly, even though the marks are blue, and don’t really belong in my color scheme, because she put them there, they’re right at home in my space, and in my heart.

If you had an essentially happy childhood, that tends to dwell with you. Tracy Kidder

Little #2

So this week I get to be the proud mom in my blog posts: yesterday with a birthday wish to my son, and today, an announcement from my daughter:

Baby #2 is joining the family. Riley will be a big sister in January, and Stephanie and Matt will be in the thick of parenting with a not-quite-three year old and a newborn. The lucky guys! Lots of work, but wonderful, meaningful…the best stuff of life.

Watching this unfold is fun, almost as much as when I was in a leading role. It’s a lot more restful, from this vantage point! I can’t wait until Riley understands her new position. She’s already quite the little firstborn. I recognize the type you know, since I am one, I’m married to one, and I gave birth to one. Firstborns are a little bossy. We just can’t help ourselves. We like to make sure things are done. And Stephanie and Matt have exactly the same mix in family order that Rob and I had. Two firstborns married, had their firstborn, and now will add a baby to the mix.

I always say that any family dysfunction we had was the result of our mix of three first-borns and a baby, in birth order. Three of us always wanted to direct, and the youngest one marched to his own drummer. Well, maybe that was his best option, with three of us leading the way all the time.

Anyway, exciting, happy news! I got it as a mother’s day present, but it wasn’t my secret to share, until today. Today the little ultrasound image is up on Stephanie’s Facebook page. I’m a believer in letting the one with the big news share the big news. So now that’s done, and I can share it too.

Can’t wait for January and a new little to cuddle!

My mom

I’m not going to be with my mom tomorrow, although we’ll have a chance to celebrate a belated Mother’s Day together in a couple of weeks. It would be nice to be with her on the day. But often we make do with phone calls to mark special events, the price of living many states apart.

While I won’t be with her in person, she knows my heart. In many ways, we are very different people, yet we share a strong bond that has stood the test of time and distance.

My mom is a passionate person, and cares deeply about family, faith, and country. She loves to cook big meals and have a crowd around her table. One of her favorite things to do is to plan treats for the little ones in the group. She has a play area set up for the small fry, and over the years the grandchildren and nieces and nephews have all had their turn among the toys. They’ve had their special cakes and tea parties, and they know she keeps kid food on hand at all times. “Goodie bags” and little “unbirthday” presents have marked many a visit to her house.

She’s a great one for family photos, and is always on a mission to gather the group to get an updated shot for her wall. You can see the changes over the years…the babies who are now teens, or worse, the young adults who are now grey adults.

She and my dad were married more than 50 years, and though he left us in 2008, he is still in her thoughts, a close companion throughout the days. She remains married, even in her widowed state.

She’s a strong woman, healthy, energetic, and motivated. She always has more to do than she can do in a day. She is creative, and when she was younger, channeled creativity into sewing, cooking, yard work, painting, and mothering. She made my wedding dress, sewed special things for my children, made drapes for the house. She’s an artist who painted in oils, and a gardener who loves flowers. She is a legendary cook, and has created memorable feasts over the years. She’s famous for her yeast rolls, her fried rice, and her Italian Cream cake, a few of her many specialties.

She’s enthusiastic about her work, continuing the commitment to Christian missions that she shared with my dad. She’s a writer and publisher, a traveler and a speaker. She is tireless in her efforts to share her heart, and her faith in God.

She is a prolific author and an amazing correspondent. Computer savvy, she emails and Facebooks friends and co-workers across the country and around the world. No slouch, my mom. She often works late into the night keeping up with her commitments.

She has been a support throughout my life, listening, listening, listening. She has heard my sorrows and my joys, and has made soothing noises at the right moments, rejoiced in the good things, and resisted opportunities to throw out the occasional “I told you so,” even when it has been warranted. She is ever hopeful for me and mine.

My mom is generous in her caring, ferocious in her concern, and sympathetic to a fault. I rarely catch her in a down mood. She’s carried along by the tide of her hopes and plans, and by the memories: so many good memories through the years.

My mom has been fortunate in many ways. Though not a rich woman by monetary standards, she has had love and family and calling to fill her life. Though the family picture has changed through the years, and some dear ones are not in more recent photos, she finds joy in those around her. And she looks toward the future, to accomplishing her goals, finishing her mission, and watching the grandchildren, and great grandchildren, grow.

Happy Mother’s Day to my mom, Betty Burton Choate: my example, my encourager, my friend, a charming woman with a charmed life, and a full life. Long may she live it!

Getting to know myself

In the past few years, post kids in the house, I’ve had more time for myself. In some ways, with work, travel, new projects, my days seem as full as ever. But there has been a shift in the busy-ness of my free time. Now I’m more likely to spend time reading online, or exploring some new activity for myself. Not that I’m totally self-absorbed. No, there are others in my life, and I reach out in many ways. But in the quiet of the evenings, or early mornings, I have freedom that couldn’t exist in the years of getting kids out the door for school, or doing laundry for a family, or proof-reading term papers due the next day.

I read other women’s work and at times, feel like I’m a late bloomer, or maybe just incredibly slow on the journey of self-discovery. There are women in their 30s that seem to be more enlightened about themselves, and more experienced in some ways, than I am. How can that be? And then I remember. I was busy that decade of my life. And in my 20s. And until late 40s. Not that motherhood and family prevent self-examination, or stunt personal growth. No, in many ways, parenting is a never-ending growth opportunity and personal challenge. It has made me want to be the best “me” I can be, and for the best motives. But it takes tremendous commitment and focus. And maybe I’m not as much a multi-tasker as I like to think.

I began the experience of motherhood at a young age. At twenty-three, just out of college a year and still a baby myself, I had a baby. And suddenly that consumed my world. In many ways, because my husband was equally consumed with medical school, it became my salvation. I was so absorbed with this new person in my life that I wasn’t troubled by the pattern our lives fell into. We each committed to our assigned roles (roles we assumed and accepted without discussion or question) and put our heads down to power through the next several years of life, surviving professional school, residency, another child, moves, stress, minimum income, minimum time together. Looking back, it is nothing short of a miracle that our marriage survived and that we were able to create a functional and even positive environment for our children. Somehow we did it. Now I understand that there was a cost, and we paid a price. We paid a price personally, and jointly. But at the time, we were just doing what was expected of us. What we expected of ourselves. Failure wasn’t an option.

As our children grew and I took on work, first part time, then full time, and Rob moved through various stages of a career in medicine; as the obligations and responsibilities of family and social commitments, volunteer positions and the chores of life grew to be never ending, we soldiered on. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I realize that for all of the thought and care that I put into those years, there were pieces of myself that were dormant, just waiting to breathe, to have opportunity to surface.

Let me validate, for myself and for anyone else who cares to know, that those years were good. Reduced to a few paragraphs in blunt language, it’s easy to miss the joy, the love, the laughter, the good stuff. So let me acknowledge: it was mostly good. But it was busy, overwhelming, consuming, challenging. Fill in the blank with whatever word conveys the sense of completeness. The reality of life is: if you jump into the pool of creating a family, it’s going to consume you. It may consume you with joy or with grief, with busy-ness or guilt, but it will consume you. You can’t really dabble in it. If you do it well and successfully, that takes time. And if you do it poorly, there’s a cost to that too.

So what’s the point of all of this? The point is: I did it. We did it. We made it through to the other side. I always say if you have children, you’re going to pay the price either early or late. It’s not a question of the value of the decision to parent. That statement simply acknowledges the commitment. And the hands on commitment, whether you begin at twenty-three or forty-three, is going to take time, energy, money, thought, self.

Now I’m in a different time of life. I’ve written before about the empty nest, about growing into it, accepting, coming to celebrate it. The emotional ties with our kids are strong. The effort to be connected still takes time and thought, energy and commitment. I still spend money on our kids. Of course I do. They didn’t exit my life when they went off to college, or joined the army, or got married, or began to earn enough that they didn’t need regular rescue checks. But the hands on tasks are largely done. And that has left room in my days for self-discovery, for quietness, for thought. It’s amazing how much time you need to think and absorb.

I don’t know how I stack up against others. Maybe I am slow. Or maybe some of the writing that I read online that speaks of a self-knowledge gained at an earlier time in life is possible because the women writing have taken different paths than I did. Maybe they found themselves first, and will add family later, if at all. And I’m not saying that personal epiphanies and family are mutually exclusive. I had moments of enlightenment even when up to my armpits in the lives of my kids. I learned to do many things because of them, and through them.  But it’s easier to get to know myself without the noise of a full house.

So I’m working on it. Some parts of me I’m well acquainted with, but there are nooks and crannies that I’ve hardly looked into. I’m exploring, both to see what I’ve neglected or forgotten about myself, and to learn what I can contribute to the rest of the world. Because really, the point is not to do all this growing just for my benefit. Isn’t the goal to integrate, to give, to share, to take part in the lives of others? Yes, that’s the goal. And to do that, I have to know what I bring. I’m late (those who know me will hardly find that surprising…one of my faults…I’m chronically late). But I had a great reason for my slow start, and I don’t regret it. I was investing up front. Now it’s time to catch up, and I’m ready to do that.

Where are you? Did you begin early, or late, to know yourself?

Crossover

It’s an interesting thing to watch people grow up, especially if the people happen to be your own children. You see them through all the early stages, through the cute baby and childhood years. Then comes the teen era, and while I admit that my two were easy teens, it was still a challenging period in our lives. And now they are in their 20s, 23 and 27.

This summer, we will have our five-year anniversary of being empty-nesters. Hard to believe it could already be that long since we had kids at home every day. Stephanie and Matt will have their 5th anniversary in June, and Alex will end his five-year contract with the Army in August.

Through these years, I’ve seen a lot of changes in them. They were good kids…but they were kids. Now, they have not only taken on adult responsibilities, they have crossed into the adult world in maturity. Not that they’re all done. Oh no, none of us is ever a completely finished human being. That’s part of the magic of humanity. We get to continue the process of re-inventing, of self-discovery, maturing, throughout life. Circumstances change around us and cause us to respond. Or maybe the change is self-generated. But the point is, we have an almost infinite capacity to grow. And that’s a good thing.

I sometimes hear them complain about work issues, someone not doing their job or doing it poorly. Alex has experienced the loss of a number of friends, casualties of war and life. That’s a growth experience a lot of people don’t have at his age. He spent a year deployed to a combat zone in Iraq, and that shaped him too.

Stephanie, 7th grade math teacher, brave soul that she is, is frequently saddened by the turmoil she witnesses in the lives of her students. And she’s caught between expectations of her as a teacher and the burden of having 30+ kids in class several times a day. And she’s taken on the joy and journey of being mom to Riley, in itself guaranteed to furnish a lifetime of growth opportunities.

I’ve seen them mature in their marriages too. That’s another area no one is ever done with. If you’re married, you’re challenged. Not because of the specific person you’re married to…because you are with another human being. No two are alike, no two are always in sync, and no two are perfect. And young marriages are by definition a work in progress. Actually any marriage is a work in progress.

But what I hear is not the complaints or frustration. I hear two people who understand if you take on a job, you need to step up, do it right (or as best you can). They understand that actions have consequences, that adults do the responsible thing. That applies to relationships and to work. They get that life isn’t always fun, although it often is. They’ve learned to value the income they earn, and understand they are paid because of the effort they put in. We’re not subsidizing their lives or their choices. And that’s a good thing.

And the best part? Rob says we’re just consultants now. That’s our role. Of course we’ll always be their parents. But most of the time we get to be friends with these two great young adults.  Making the transition from parent to friend has been a gradual process; not consciously sought, but so rewarding. This is the part you can’t foresee when children are little: how sweet it is to see them on their on path to becoming, in spite of the parenting mistakes and mis-steps. This is not bragging, you understand. In fact, it’s astonishing to me that two small beings, put into the hands of naive twenty-somethings, are stable young adults. And that’s the real payoff for all the years of work, lost sleep, taxi service, school events, youth group, soccer practice, etc., etc., etc. It’s a good place to be, and I’m honored to have a front row seat from which to witness, cheer, and encourage them on their way.

My kids are coming home

Sometimes you have to experience to understand. I knew as a child that my parents loved me. But I couldn’t understand that fully until I had my own children. Now, seeing the cycle repeat through Stephanie’s eyes, watching her fall in love with little Riley, I know that once again, the parent/child magic is at work.

As an adult, I knew that it was meaningful to my parents and to my inlaws when we visited.  They told us so, they thanked us for coming, for making the time to be with them. For most of our marriage, we have lived many states away from both sets of parents. Visits home were at best a couple of times each year. And some years the trips back to  family were supplemented with visits from our parents to us, in our home.

Now, still in the early years of our children being out of the nest, I realize more fully what a gift it is to parents to have adult children come for a visit. I can’t explain how it is different, having my kids back in our home, rather than visiting them in their homes or meeting somewhere for a vacation. Each scenario is enjoyable. But there is something unique about welcoming them back, about planning their favorite meals, about planning to spoil them a bit in the home setting. It isn’t about control or trying to turn them into children again…too late for that! But it is about recognizing that when they are “home,” there is a unique opportunity to mother, to enjoy having them under our roof again. It reminds me that our bonds, created over the years of childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, have stood the test of time, have weathered the stages of growth, and that now, we are not only parents and children, we are friends. We call each other out of choice rather than obligation. We look for opportunities to share.

They have left the nest, but they come back to renew the connection, to reinforce the ties. We’ve done it: we successfully launched two fully functioning young people into their own lives. We let go, and now, we reap the reward of seeing their futures unfold. And next week, we’ll spend time with them here, at home, and it will be good.