“What’s Hamlet?” he asked.
“It’s a play,” I said. “A play by William Shakespeare.”
“Is it about a hammer that gets totally out-of-control and smashes everything in sight and nothing will stop it?” he asked.
I love seven-year-olds.
“What’s Hamlet?” he asked.
“It’s a play,” I said. “A play by William Shakespeare.”
“Is it about a hammer that gets totally out-of-control and smashes everything in sight and nothing will stop it?” he asked.
I love seven-year-olds.
Two nights ago, my seven-year-old was seized with the sudden desire for a dance party. So we found some danceable music (the disco channel on Pandora), took off our socks, and boogied down.
When I say “we,” I mean my seven-year-old son, my five-year-old son, and me. Scott, apparently not in a dancing mood, sat on the sofa with his phone, which was on RECORD. “Join us!” I kept saying, but he was having a lot more fun watching and filming the other three members of his nuclear family dance their hearts out.
I should mention here that for my two very active little boys, “dance” is a relative term. Five-year-old Luke in particular has moves that can best be decribed as energetic gallumphing, with recklessly-swinging arms and wild spins on the floor and gravity-defying sideways leaps.
“That must be what they call breakdancing,” said my dad a few weeks ago, watching my youngest spin and spiral .
“Something‘s gonna get broken,” I said, eyeing the knicknacks.
Luckily, though, this week’s dance party passed with no injuries to either person or property. And though Earth, Wind, and Fire is not my music of choice, there is something so liberating about closing the blinds and clearing the floor and gettin’ down, unselfconsciously. I didn’t care how terrible my dancing was, and neither did my kids, who were just delighted to have me there with them.
So much of what we adults do is about image: creating it, maintaining it, controlling it, promoting it. Even if you’re not in an image-driven profession, somewhere along the line you become hyper-aware of how others see you. It was nice to turn that off for a time, to be exuberant and enthusiastic and simply not care (or almost not care: I did tell Scott that if he wants to stay married, no one outside the nuclear family can ever see the video). It was fun, and it was energizing, and it was great exercise.
Eventually we got Scott off the sofa too, joining us on our small living room dance floor. “We Are Family” blared in the background, a reminder of our wedding reception, another day when I simply didn’t care how awful my dancing was. For a few minutes the four of us moved and grooved and sang along, unselfconsciously and joyfully. We burned calories and built a very nice memory, one that I won’t need a video to remember.
When have you done something just for the joy of it? (And while we’re on the subject, what’s your dance music of choice?)
Sometimes I think God must be chortling at the fact that a ballet-dancing, paper-doll collecting, tea-party loving, utterly unathletic little girl like me grew up to have two man-children.
It’s all new to me, boys and their energy and their interests. I never had a brother, or any male cousins whom I saw on a regular basis, so the learning curve has been immense.
It goes without saying that I would not trade my precious little boys for anyone or anything. That doesn’t mean that I don’t get kind of bummed out that we never spend any time in the doll department of the toystore . Every now and then I look at my boxed sets of Ginghams paper dolls, kept with the idea that I’d one day have a little girl much like myself who would love to play with them, and I realize how much my mothering reality is different from what I’d always somehow thought it would be. Though the boys have found some of my old childhood toys engaging, such as the two bunk beds my mom made for my Cabbage Patch dolls (and which she still has at the house), they always manage to put a boys’ stamp on them (for example, evicting the dolls in favor of monsters).
But if life is about stretching ourselves and embracing new experiences, I’m doing that daily with my boys. It’s not just that our house is filled with toys that I would never have wanted to play with myself as a child. It’s that my boys are introducing me to new experiences that I surely would never have had without them. These experiences are changing me, as experiences tend to do.
For instance, I’m a more knowledgeable person for learning to tell the difference between Thomas the Tank engine toys, a more appreciative person for reading bedtime stories that celebrate the wonders of construction vehicles (I never thought about it before, but they are very cool). I’m learning humility by going outside and tossing a football on the lawn, given that I’ve never yet been able to keep it from wobbling end over end. The boys are far more active than I was as a kid, so I’m developing soccer skills I never had. I’m even growing in my knowledge of pop culture through the boys’ love of Legos and superheroes.
This could have happened with daughters, too; even if I’d had one, there are no guarantees she’d have loved the things I loved. But what I can say for sure from my own life these last seven years is that having boys has stretched my horizons. It has also stretched my muscles, and my mind. Every day, I am challenged and enriched in some new little way … and I’m a better person for it.
(And really, how cute are those slippers?)
Parents, how have your kids stretched your horizons?
Have you ever walked a labyrinth?
A few weeks ago, my husband and I took five-year-old Luke and seven-year-old Matthew to a retreat center. We had no formal agenda, just the desire to spend some family time in a beautiful peaceful place in the midst of the pre-Christmas rush.
I’d been to the center years before, most recently in spring, and had admired its blooming trees and had enjoyed wandering its paths and sand labyrinth. Its old Tudor-style buildings with their green lawns made it look like an English estate, thrilling the Anglophiliac geek in my soul. My grandmother used to attend Mass at the center; she and Grandpa lived in the neighborhood. For me, it was a place of gentle stillness and reflection.
For my boys, it was a brand-new playground. They took off at a run down one of the paths, delighted to find the labyrinth waiting at the end. Where others see a labyrinth and think Slow walk into insight, my boys see it and think Racetrack!
Scott and I corralled them and, in low voices, instructed them in the art of walking a labyrinth. (Key point: walk, don’t run.) We set off in a line: Luke and Scott together, then Matthew, then me. We all meandered slowly along the sandy paths with rounded edges, turning, advancing, going towards the tall rough-edged stone in the center, then moving away.
Not for the first time, I thought about what a brilliant concept a labyrinth is. You know where you want to go; you can see the center, the petaled flower or standing stone. It’s not like a maze with high walls, where you are wandering blind. You can see the endpoint clearly, and it ‘s not that far away. You could just step right over the little ridges to get to the center, but to do so would be like cheating on a test: you’d get the result you wanted, but without earning it, it wouldn’t be meaningful or satisfying. And without the walk, you wouldn’t get to feel your thoughts unspooling slowly, which is really its own reward.
Best of all, a labyrinth promises that you’ll get to the center eventually. You don’t know how, but you will.
When I think over my life, I see that it’s had more than a few labyrinths. Finding Scott. Surviving our reproductive losses and becoming parents. Publishing books. The paths to these ends have all been serpentine, with lots of switchbacks and seeming dead-ends and wandering through sand. But if you keep eyes on the “what” and you don’t try to obsessively control the “how,” it’s often a lot more meaningful than any “how” you could have engineered for yourself.
A labyrinth works as a metaphor for parenting, too. I know the kind of men I want my boys to grow up to be: spiritual, kind, reflective, honest, strong. I’m not always sure how to get to that endpoint; I second-guess many of my decisions, and sometimes feel like I’m floundering. But you try to go slowly and reflectively, and you do your best to trust that the switchbacks and apparent setbacks are a necessary part of the process. That’s the most you can do … and I guess it’s enough.
As I walked along, I thought of the boys. Did they know what this labyrinth was all about? Was it just a fun exercise, or did they sense that there might be something more here?
“Matthew,” I said to his back as I followed along in his slow footsteps, “the labyrinth is a way to think about life. You think you’ll never make it to the rock in the center, and sometimes it seems like you’re getting farther and farther away from it. But if you keep trying, you’ll get there eventually.”
“The rock is like Jesus,” said Matthew suddenly. ”You keep trying to get to him, and it seems like you never will, but you do. It reminds you to always trust that you will get to Jesus.”
I think he gets it, I thought.
I asked him to say the comment again so Daddy could hear it. It made Scott catch my eye and smile. I knew what he was thinking, because I was thinking it too: This is a moment I’ll want to remember. The four of us kept on going, getting closer to the center, the winter sun casting our shadows on the sandy path.
That’s life: moment after moment, insight after insight, step after step after step.
It’s a question I dreaded almost as much as “Mom, where do babies come from?” It first came up last year, in the car, driving Matthew home from kindergarten.
“Mom,” he suddenly said from the back seat, “is there really a Santa Claus?”
I did my best teacher thing and stalled for time. “Why do you ask, Matthew?”
It turns out one of the girls in his class was saying that there was no Santa, and he was not sure whether she was right.
I hedged, saying, “You know, Santa really was a real person — he was born hundreds of years ago, and was very kind and generous to everyone.”
“But is he real?” Matthew asked.
“The spirit of Santa is real,” I said, launching into an off-the-cuff and no doubt bizarrely confusing explanation of how the season is all about giving and we are all being Santa on earth every time we are kind to one another, etc. In other words: I wussed out.
It’s a tough thing, this whole Santa legend. It was great when Matthew was a preschooler, and I could just say things like, “Santa will come tomorrow!” and “Let’s put out milk and cookies for Santa!” and there was one hundred percent buy-in and no direct questions.
But last year, the cracks started to show. There was the conversation above, followed by a few more almost identical ones, with identical verbal tap-dancing on my part. There was the look of skepticism on Matthew’s face when Santa just happened to know that we were going to be out-of-town on Christmas Day and just happened to bring a new train layout a week before Christmas — coincidentally, when my parents were spending the night at our house for an early holiday celebration. I realized that the more direct the question, the more uncomfortable I felt; I was essentially lying to my son if I said “Yes, there is a Santa,” so I engaged in conversational acrobatics that would put a politician to shame. But I didn’t at any time cop to the actual truth, and so we managed to get through last year.
And I really wanted him to keep on believing. I didn’t want him to have the experience I had, at about age five, when my belief was shattered by the babysitter of my best friend. We were at the park one afternoon, and as we all swung on the jungle gym this teenage girl volunteered the information that there was no Santa Claus, a declaration which surely violates the Hippocratic Oath of babysitters. “There’s no Santa, and there’s no Easter Bunny,” she told us with devastating confidence. Somewhat inexplicably, she added, “But there IS a Tooth Fairy.”
It was a disappointment, to be sure. And I wanted to spare Matthew that loss of his sweet holiday innocence.
But last week, when all four of us were in the car, Matthew asked the question again. This time, Scott answered. “The spirit of Santa is real,” he said cautiously, borrowing my totally inadequate script. We changed the subject before Matthew could pursue the topic further; little brother Luke was in the adjacent carseat, after all.
Santa’s living on borrowed time, I thought.
Sure enough, just a few evenings ago, I was making dinner when he called to me from the other room. “Mom,” he asked point-blank, “does Santa really come down the chimney and give us presents?”
And just like that, I knew the time was Now.
“Come on in here, Matthew,” I said. He came into the kitchen and I knelt down beside him.
“No, Honey,”I said. “Santa doesn’t actually bring presents.”
I’m not sure what I was expecting, exactly: copious tears, a crestfallen expression, a seven-year-old rendition of Munch’s The Scream. But I sure wasn’t expecting his actual reaction. His face lit up with a sudden smile. It was a smile of relief, almost one of triumph.
“I knew it!” he said. “It’s you and Daddy, isn’t it?”
We talked for a few minutes about why we tell the story of Santa Claus, even though he isn’t real. “For one thing, it’s a nice story that makes people happy,” I said. “And the second reason is because Christmas is about being kind and generous, and that’s what Santa is.”
“Also,” said my highly logical son, “because parents want their kids to be good.”
So Santa is over, where Matthew is concerned. He had about a six-and-a-half-year run; I guess I should be thankful for that. But what was most fascinating about that kitchen conversation is that Matthew wasn’t the only one who learned something new. I learned a lot more than he did, I think — namely, that there comes a time when trying to maintain the beautiful illusion for your kids is actually worse than entrusting them with the full truth. They may be ready for that truth much earlier than we think they are … and much earlier than we, in our parental nostalgia for their younger selves, want them to be.
The relief on Matthew’s face said so much. He wasn’t hungry to keep believing in the jolly old elf with the sack of toys. He was hungry to get the full truth, from Mom, and to know that his own gradual piecing together of the evidence was in fact correct.
Luckily, he hasn’t been telling his little brother about what he learned, nor has he been rolling his eyes whenever Santa is mentioned. I think maybe he’s going to do what I did throughout most of my childhood: enjoy the lovely tale for what it is, holding both the truth and the fantasy together in his brain.
He’s a little older and a little wiser … as am I.
What’s your Santa story? Do your kids still believe? When did you yourself find out the truth?
When you never had a brother, being the mother of two boys involves a bit of a learning curve. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is the overall lack of — shall we say — social graces that seems to be a hallmark of the male under-ten set (and probably the over-ten set, too). Loud and proud belches, fart noises, gleeful hypothetical statements about going poo-poo in one’s pants: this is standard stuff around here these days.
That’s why I had a pleasant surprise the other night. We’d just wrapped up grace before dinner when Small Moyer Boy (I won’t say which one) had something to say.
“Are you all done making the sign of the cross?” he asked us. “Because I am going to do a really big burp, and I don’t want to do it if people are still making the sign of the cross.”
I guess that’s called reverence, small-boy style. I’m grateful he’s picking up these lessons somewhere.
Speaking of gratitude, I’m guest-posting today over at DotMagis ( the Ignatian spirituality blog) as part of their series on thankfulness. I wrote about one of my favorite quotations, and about my recent efforts to respond to life’s little annoyances with something other than rolled eyes and “Why me?”s.
Lately, I’ve been very much in clover.
“Here, Mommy,” Luke says, handing me a small limp stalk of clover from the front lawn. “Here’s a flower for you.” Not to be outdone, Matthew runs to the grass and picks a stalk too, handing it to me with a beaming smile.
I always take the clover with exclamations of great delight. If we’re in the middle of a football game, I’ll tuck it in a pocket until we’re back in the house, where I put it in a “vase” (a Pyrex dish is the only thing shallow enough to handle such short, thin stems) in the kitchen window.
It’s become quite the thing lately, this giving “flowers” to Mom. At Golden Gate Park last Sunday, the boys kept handing me bits of clover from the picnic area. I put the stalks carefully into my jeans pocket, but by the time we got home several hours later they were already dry and crumbling, more like lint than actual foliage.
It didn’t matter. The boys gave me more flowers the very next day.
I love it that my boys see clover — plain old garden variety clover, the kind you actively discourage from growing in the lawn — as flowers. I love it that they give it to me with such huge proud smiles. I love that they fully expect me to treat their tiny garden offerings in the same way I treat the birthday roses from Scott, or the stately birds of paradise in the dining room. It’s not the size of the flower that counts; it’s the sweetness behind it, the beaming face, the grubby little hand reaching out to me.
Those things are precious. They boys think it’s the flowers making me smile, but they don’t know the half of it. It’s their innocence that makes me melt, that makes it so easy to respond with genuine, unforced emotion. That’s it, the real gift.
This hit home to me yesterday, in fact. As the boys and I returned home (Matthew from school, Luke from a day at Grandma and Grandpa’s), they veered off to the lawn to pick me some more clover. My arms full of schoolbags and mail, I could barely hold it. Once in the kitchen, though, I added it to the small bouquet in the Pyrex dish, then got caught up in the usual routine of fixing dinner and supervising homework.
When Scott got home, the boys couldn’t wait to show him the toys they’d received from Grandma and Grandpa: a toy train for Luke, a poseable robot for Matthew. (After raising two daughters, my dad can’t resist buying little-boy toys.) Scott, for his part, was excited to play around with his brand-new phone.
“We all got something today!” Matthew said. “Daddy got a phone, and Luke and I got our toys.” He thought for a moment. “Mommy, what did you get?”
I paused for a moment, casting my mind back over the day. Had I ordered a book for myself, bought anything at the store? I was drawing a blank, when Matthew broke the silence.
“I know what you got!” he said happily. “You got flowers.”
Why yes, I did. And nothing could be better than that.
With Book le troisième coming out soon, I’m getting asked the question again: “How do you do it all?”
On the one hand, it is a natural question when people find out that I am a teacher and a mom who also writes books. But it’s also a question that always makes me feel sort of sad, because it is usually (okay: always) women who are asking, and I always hope that the subtext to their question is not, Geez, I feel like such a slacker compared to her.
One the plus side, the question is a good one because it allows me to set the record straight. I don’t do it all. There is actually a great deal that I leave undone. It probably so happens, in fact, that the things I don’t do are the very things that these women do do (now say that ten times really fast), and if we were all to share how we spend our time, we’d probably all feel a little bit better about ourselves.
So in that spirit, I will hereby air my dirty laundry. I don’t do it all, and here’s proof.
1) Aside from the bathroom and the kitchen, I don’t clean the house unless we have people coming over. Periodically I get inspired to run the vaccuum or sweep, but this does not happen on a regular basis. Yes, this means that the corners are often home to herds of dust buffalo. We survive.
2) Over seven Halloweens and two kids, I’ve only made one homemade costume. ( Melissa and Doug do such a good job! Why compete?)
3) The day before Pajama Day at my son’s school last year, I was at the Carter’s store buying new pajamas. Had I sent him to school in the ones he actually wore, both he and I would have perished in shame, they were so pathetic and small on him.
4) My last entry in Luke’s baby book was about four and a half years ago. He is five. (I honestly feel kind of bad about this one, especially as the younger child so often gets the short end of the stick. Then again, I’m not too current on Matthew’s baby book, either.)
5) Whenever we have a potluck or such at work, I always sign up to bring drinks. I actually like baking and cooking, but having to produce twenty-five cupcakes midweek and under pressure is just too much for my sanity.
6) Ironing? What’s that again?
I could go on, believe me. My point is that it’s so easy to fall into the comparison game. I know I do it too, when Facebook friends post pictures of the fabulous iced cake they just made for their hubby’s birthday or of their beautifully handmade floral arrangement or of their yard’s festive holiday decorations.
And yet I have to remind myself: it is not the same person doing all of this. We tend to see blog and Facebook and Pinterest posts and forget that there are multiple people doing these things, that it’s not one fearsome Stepford Martha Stewart über-wife/mother . That woman doesn’t exist. We all cut corners somewhere, somehow — and as long as there are only twenty-four hours in a day and we don’t all have live-in Downton Abbey-like help, that’s just how it is going to be. I’m learning to make my peace with it and hopefully you are, too. Hopefully all of us can learn to let ourselves off the evil comparison hook and be content with what we do manage to get done, whatever that happens to be.
But I do have one little favor to ask: Would you call and invite yourself over for dinner? The house could use a good dusting.
As a forty-year-old cradle Catholic, I’ve heard these words more times than I can count:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
I’ve read these words, I’ve memorized them, I’ve sung them. I’ve prayed them as a kid in a blue plaid uniform and as a teenager attending a high school named after St. Francis. I thought I knew them inside and out, until I was reflecting on them a few weeks back and I suddenly realized that they capture motherhood — motherhood, in all its paradox and glory — so perfectly.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
When you have a child, you realize that your role in this universe has forever shifted. You now have to step up to the plate and do what your parents once did for you. You aren’t on the receiving end of the action words anymore, like you used to be when you were a kid. You’re now the subject of the verb, the one doing the helping or the consoling or the understanding or the listening or the comforting.
Is it hard to give and give like that? You bet.
And yet even though you are constantly sacrificing yourself for others, and yes, even though you may feel a little bitter about that at times, you don’t go away empty. There’s a freedom that comes from realizing that your own little you-centered plans for the evening are not the only ones, or even the best ones. You come to realize that playing a game on the living room rug with your kids is actually far more renewing than looking at shoes online. In serving others, we receive our own graces, gifts we didn’t know we needed.
And when you remember that truth, parenting becomes easier. Maybe next time, your kids won’t have to ask so many times before you finally pry yourself away from the laptop and help them set up the gameboard. Maybe you’ll even be the one to suggest playing the game in the first place.
Because there’s a wonderful paradox to parenting: when we empty ourselves, we end up full.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
For many of us moms, life is a crazy juggling act. It involves weighing the competing demands of children, job, marriage, housework, and exercise (what’s that again?). It involves making sacrifices that you don’t want to make, cutting corners that you don’t want to cut, and just longing for a day off so you can let your stress level subside to something healthy again.
And for me, last week was Exhibit A in this kind of nuttiness.
But in the middle of it all, my son handed me a picture he’d drawn. It was a little underwater scene, with fish and a dolphin and a bird and other marine life. And somehow, through the magic that is a child’s creative gift, I felt the stress releasing its grip. After all, how can you keep on feeling crabby when you are looking at a crab as cute as this?
It’s a fundamental truth of motherhood: sometimes, the little things are huge. I’m learning that one tiny drawing, presented with a proud smile and a small-boy hug, has the power to redeem even the roughest toughest week.
What is one little thing that is brightening your life today?