Category Archives: Adventures in Parenting

Mary: A mom who had to let go

Jesus Teaches the People by the Sea by James Tissot

When I was a junior in college, I studied in Paris for a semester.  As I boarded that plane at San Francisco International Airport, hauling my comically overstuffed Samsonite, I was nervous and excited and totally ready to immerse myself in a foreign culture.  And I had a fabulous time … so fabulous, in fact, that I resolved to go back and live there again someday.

About a year later, I did.   After graduating from college, I found a position teaching English in a  Parisian suburb, used my junior year connections to find a reasonable studio apartment, and embarked for nine more dirt-poor but unforgettable months in the City of Lights.

It’s only now, years later, that I fully understand what my mom had to go through while I was gone.

She hid her worry pretty well, all considered.  But looking back now, I can understand the anxiety that must have been there, especially that first trip. After all, I was going off to a foreign country I’d never seen before, living in a big city with a host family none of us had ever met.  There were the differences in language, culture, and social norms to navigate.   There was the very real chance that I might meet some dreamy European male who would sweep me off my feet and inspire me to take up  permanent residence in the other hemisphere.  And my two stays in Paris happened before the advent of email and cellphones made the world shrink in size.  There were many, many  times that I was out with friends on the town, or on a train to Germany or Italy, and there was absolutely no way for my parents to contact me unless I called them first.

I’m sure all of this was going through my mom’s mind before I ever boarded that Northwestern plane on that January evening.  But she hid her fears well, because she knew how desperately I wanted to go.  She knew how much I’d been aching to see the world, and  that I’d never be entirely at peace until I let the waters of a totally different culture close over my head for a while.  That’s what moms do: we let our kids go chase their dreams, even though it costs us a heckuva lot to see them leave.

And Mary did this too.  She let Jesus go off and preach and teach and fufill his own potential, doing what he was born to do.  I believe that Mary was a woman of great faith, but let’s not forget that she was also a mom, and I suspect that she worried pretty ferociously about her baby.  After all, he wasn’t off talking about puppy dogs and rainbows and safe, nonthreatening things; he was challenging the system, pointing out hypocrisy and pettiness, which is an excellent way to make people want to shut you up for good.  She must have known that he was getting on the wrong side of very powerful people who could cause very powerful trouble.  But she also knew that this was his calling, that it was what he was born to do.  She couldn’t keep him from it.  All she could do was love him, hope for the best, and pray like mad that he’d be safe.

That’s what my mom did, twice.  It’s what I’ll likely find myself doing someday, if my boys have inherited even an iota of my wanderlust.  And as we let our kids go off and pursue the lives they are dying to live, we can rest assured that we are in good company.  In this — as in so many things — Mary was there before us, showing us how it’s done and loving us as we do it.

If this post sounds familiar, it’s because it’s one that I wrote four years ago.  School has been crazily busy lately, too busy to write anything new, so I decided to rerun an old favorite.  And hey — it’s May!  What better time to honor Mary? 

NOW the family is complete

Years ago, Scott gave me this sweet figurine for Mother’s Day.  I love it.  A mom and two kids: Perfect for me.

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Just the other day, I found my older son staring at it.   “Mom,” he said after a moment, “is this you and me and Luke?”

“Sure is,” I said.

He pointed to the mom and each of the two kids in turn, saying, “This is you, and the big one is me, and the little one is Luke.”

“Yup,” I said.

“But where’s Daddy?”

“Daddy’s not in it.”

He looked around the room  and picked up a toy, placing it next to the trio of loving family members.  “This is Daddy,” he said happily.

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Well, come to think of it, Daddy DOES have a son named Luke ….

Backing off so things can bloom

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Last summer, I planted this fuschia in a pot in the yard.  I kept watering it and plying it with Miracle-Gro, and it … barely grew.  I hardly got a bud all summer.

Then, over fall and winter, I basically ignored it.  (Primroses excepted, I ignored the yard in general, as the weeds will bear witness.)  But last week, I happened to go out on the patio and there was the fuschia: twice as tall as it used to be, twice as wide, and blooming with beautiful bell-like flowers.

I think there must be a message here somehow, one that applies to parenting as well as gardening: Too much attention can backfire, sometimes.  Maybe sometimes things need to be left to their own devices, to grow and bloom quietly, nourished by rain and sun and other things from above.

Is there anything in your life that you should step away from for a while? 

Who I want to be when I grow up

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My younger son recently announced that he wants to be Spiderman when he grows up.

“You can’t,” said his very literal brother.  “You can’t be someone who isn’t real.”

I kind of hope he’s wrong about that, because I too want to be a fictional character when I grow up.  My choice?  Ma Joad from The Grapes of Wrath.

If you know the story (about which I blogged just a few weeks ago – I must really like it), you know why I idolize her.  Ma keeps her family together throughout all the trials and challenges of their trip from Oklahoma to California.  She is able to handle drought, death, stillbirth, poverty, whiny children,  floods, hunger, car trouble,  rude people, and still hold it together.  Other people bring their crises to her because they know she can handle them, and she does.

I love how Ma has the quiet inner strength that she needs to buck her  family members up when they are feeling low.  As the narrator explains, “It was her habit to build up laughter out of inadequate materials,” which is a great way of reflecting  what parents do for their kids when times are tough and we try to find any little positive thing we can to change the tone of the moment.

It’s what I try to do when my own little family hits rough patches, but I know I’m nowhere in Ma Joad’s league.   Changes in the normal running of things tend to throw me; I kvetch loudly about car trouble and broken dishwashers, and I am slightly obsessive about needing to know what is coming next.  But Ma Joad – she takes anything life throws at her, which in this book is quite a lot.   And though Pa is the titular head of the family, everyone in the story knows that Ma is the really strong one.

And it’s not just that she’s tough; she’s loving, too.  As Jim Casy says, “There’s a woman so great with love – she scares me.”  That love extends not just to her immediate family, but to the other needy people she encounters along the way.  It’s inspiring, no matter how many times I have read the book.

So I guess my son and I each have our own personal superhero.  His is a guy who can shoot webs and walk up walls; mine is a woman who can soothe her fearful children and keep the faith and set up camp anywhere life takes her.  And maybe one day, if I’m lucky, I will be just like her.

Finding God in the math homework

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Two weeks ago my kindergartener and I were sitting at the dining room table after dinner.  I was helping him with his math homework, which involved counting and coloring stars.  He sat there, blue crayon in hand, intent on his work, when all of a sudden he spoke.

“God made the stars to give us light,” he said.

“That’s right. He did.”

“And he gave us the moon and the sun, too,” he informed me solemnly.

I love it, these childhood flashes of spiritual connection, this flexible little mind that thinks of God right in the middle of a math worksheet.  Increasingly, I can do the same; I have become better over the years at letting awareness of God’s presence color the various events of my day.  But there are still many things I do where it’s harder to sense God, to connect the dots between my task and the divine.

I think of things like sitting in traffic, or grading stacks of papers, or waiting on hold with the DMV.  And I’m not sure I’ve ever thought of God while doing a math assignment, unless it involved a desperate silent prayer uttered moments before a pre-calculus test.  (I’m a word girl, not a number girl.)

But St. Ignatius believed you can find God in all things, and ultimately I believe it, too.  Some things and situations are easier than others,  but maybe that’s why we need other people; they find the connections we miss, just like my son did when his math homework became an occasion to think of the Creator.   Other people see the fingerprints of God in places where I just see smudges.  And when they share, they gently train us to have a sharper, clearer vision than we did before.

So that’s my challenge: to try to make my mind as flexible as my kindergartener’s, a mind that bends toward God even in the traffic and the math.