Long Days and Short Years

just trying to pay attention so I don't miss my life


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Questions from the Air

On Monday I was annoyed, but on Saturday; heartbroken.

On Monday, our flight from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh was delayed, canceled, and rescheduled for the next morning. The airline cited ‘weather’ as the reason, but frustrated passengers muttered ‘sequester’ and ‘furloughed air traffic controllers’ as we found places to stay for an extra night.  My husband and I crashed on our (angelic) friends’ air mattress and returned the next day.

All last week travelers endured similar delays.  Why?  When my daughter asked me why we had returned a day late, I explained, “There just weren’t enough people working who could watch our plane in the sky.”  “Why, mama?”  “There isn’t the money to pay them honey.”  “Why, mama?”  “Uh… umm… the grown-ups are still trying to figure that out.”

By Friday, the grown-ups figured it out.  Our collective airport frustrations reached the ears of legislators who, through an almost unimaginable act of bipartisanship, fixed the problem swiftly.

Now you ask, why is that heartbreaking?

****

I first heard the news over the radio.  Saturday morning, coffee in hand.  No more excessive airport delays.  Great.  I won’t be flying anytime soon, but I do not wish extra annoyance on business travelers, parents traveling with small children, or anyone else.

However.

As a part of the report, a question came over the airwaves, right to me and my coffee cup.  But what about the cuts to programs like Headstart and Meals on Wheels?  Why has the loudest cry come from the airport lounges?  

Now, before I continue, I would like to say that, yes I know that airline delays have financial consequences.  Yes, I know that ‘entitlement programs’ carry more baggage than you could check under a plane.  Yes I know, it’s all very complicated.

Here’s something else I know:  I cared much more about my delayed flight than I do about cuts to Meals on Wheels.

It is difficult to care passionately about things that don’t affect me personally.

And given the legislative events of the past week, I don’t think that I’m the only one.


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Waiting, the Most Annoying Way to Build Character

“You have to learn to wait.”

How many times have I said this to my children?  Life, after all, is full of waiting.  Waiting in line, waiting for your turn, waiting for something to be over, waiting for something to begin.  Life is full of waiting, and so we include it in the kid-life-curriculum.  Be patient, honey.  You have to learn to wait.

But… umm… grown-ups?  Have you got this lesson down?

*****

Part One:  Highland Ave.

The bridge is under construction.  The bridge, the main bridge, the one that connects the area of My House to the area of Places I Need to Go.  Last week, on Friday afternoon, I attempted to come home.  With tired children in the backseat, I tried the alternate route.  It was gridlocked for miles.  I had been out all afternoon.  So I tried the alternative to the alternate.  There was traffic on streets where traffic has never been before.

And there was nothing to do but sit in it.  And inch forward.  And wait.

So I waited.  “Mama, she hit me!”  “No I didn’t!”  “Yes, she did!”  “Arghargheeeee!”  I kept inching.

And waiting.

I was one mile from my house and it took me a half hour to get home.

And I did.  But…

Anyone who considers themselves a patient person should try out this situation.  Let me know how it goes for you.

*****

Part Two: Advanced Waiting

Several of my friends are in the final weeks of pregnancy.  As I think about and pray for them, I remember what it was like to have nothing to do but wait.  Well, nothing to do and everything to do.  There are preparations  of course, seemingly endless preparations.  But there is no direct correlation between the work of preparing and the timing of the baby’s arrival.

Fix up the nursery?  Don’t fix up the nursery?  Doesn’t matter–the baby won’t come one day earlier or one day later.  You just have to wait.  Take a long walk?  Well, it’s worth a try, but there are no guarantees.  Keep waiting.  Make plans to go away for the weekend before the baby’s due date?  Well, the average for first-time birth is a week and a day after the due date, but that’s just an average.  Better be ready.  Or not.

The life-changing event is coming, but no one knows when.

If you have to learn to wait,  the last weeks of pregnancy are like getting a doctorate.

*****

Part Three:  Waiting Well

Of course, traffic and pregnancy aren’t the only, um, opportunities to practice the skill of waiting.  We wait for the potential employer to set up the interview, and then we wait for the call.  We wait for the test results.  We wait for the house to close, for the right car to show up on Craig’s List, for the acceptance-or-rejection letter.  We wait to see how our careers will unfold or how our children will turn out.  We do what we can, but then…

The question is not ‘will we wait?’ but ‘how will we wait?’

And the problem with waiting is that it implies we are not completely in control.  Many of us do not like this one bit, and we equate waiting with being passive, and being passive with something like laziness or lack of ambition.  “I just need to work harder” we tell ourselves, “I can fix this.”  And if we can’t, like being stuck in $#@^&% traffic, our frustration with ourselves, with the situation, or with somebody-who-is-to-blame just grows and grows.

It can make us not very nice to be around.  Just ask my children.

There is a great freedom to be found in learning to wait well.  If waiting implies not being in control, then waiting well implies trust.  Like a frustrated child who looks into the eyes of a loving parent and thinks, “Okay, if she says that it’s almost my turn, it must be.  I’ll wait.”  Of course, this implies that the one running the universe is on our side, and even some of us who say we believe this get a little nervous sometimes.  The evidence, after all, is mixed.  Really beautiful and really bad things happen to us on a semi-regular basis.

If I wait, if I attempt to trust, how do I know that it will be okay?  I have no easy answer to this question.  However, I do have a good answer to this one:  If I work and worry myself into the ground, will it be okay?

Nope.

 


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How Having Children Ruined my Life

It was one of those ‘open-mouth-insert-foot’ kind of moments.

I was sitting at a table with fifteen other women.  A diverse group in just about every sense of the word, we were gathered to study the Bible and share our perspectives on the ancient beloved words.  Something about having children came up, and we were careful, aware of the emotional minefields surrounding this topic for some of our members.  We were careful, that is, until I blurted out,

“I would say that having children has ruined my life.”

There was a surprised silence and then women began to murmur.  I heard someone explain to her neighbor, “Oh, she doesn’t mean ruined, she just means that having children changed her life.”

I disagreed and tried to explain.  ”No, I mean ruined.”  ”Ruined,” I emphasized, “but if you gave me the choice to go back to life before children, I wouldn’t do it.  Really, I wouldn’t.”  I meant the second part, but my original declaration still hung in the air.  A dear friend gave me a sharp look.  ”I hope that you don’t say that to your kids.”

And I thought, ‘I have got to come up with a better way to explain this.’

****

Okay, ‘ruined’ may be a bit extreme.  And no, I’ve never said that to my kids.  It’s just that ‘changed’  isn’t nearly strong enough to describe the massive shift that comes with the birth or adoption of young human beings.  There is, there really is, a ‘ruining’ of your previous life, but there is also the gift of new life–for you as well as for the child.  It’s a strange thing, possibly as strange as these words,

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Yes biblical scholars, I know that Jesus wasn’t specifically talking about having children in this passage, but as I have tried to follow Him through the bends and curves of my own life, I know that nothing–absolutely nothing–has illustrated this paradox of losing-life-in-order-to-find-life better than the daily joys and struggles of caring for children.  They are the hardest and best thing to ever happen to me… living paradoxes that demand more than I have to give, and then give more than I possibly demand.

They are, in the words of one of my favorite albums, a beautiful mess.  And this is also what they have made of the life formerly known as ‘mine’.

****

I’m pretty sure that I will never find the right word to describe this process, and so I will turn to metaphor.  Here’s one that I’ve been turning over in my head for some time:  Having a baby is like moving to another country.

Having a baby is like moving to another country.

First, the preparations.  You study the guidebooks.  Ask friends who have been there about their experiences.  Make lists and then gather all the stuff you’ll need.  Prepare and wait, prepare and wait… you try to imagine what it will be like.  Of course, if you’re having or adopting a baby, your departure time is an estimate, but you’d better be ready when it comes!

And then you’re in the air, on your way.  It may be a long or short flight, it’s hard to anticipate the turbulence, but at some point you touch down.  Welcome to a foreign place–the land of your baby.  Not generalized ‘babyland’ mind you, but the land of your very specific baby, with his or her very specific mix of traits, proclivities and desires.

And good luck learning the language.

There is a kind of culture shock that takes place for new parents, and it’s no wonder.  Everything that you took for granted before–going to the grocery store, sleeping through the night, getting a quick shower–is now complicated by new rules that you have to figure out as you go.  Everything changes.  It is exciting, exotic, and exhausting.  Culture shock is no joke, especially when it’s coupled with some significant jet lag.

And then, day by day, somehow, you adapt.  You grow.  You learn the language.  You become more and more proficient at navigating your new land.  People visit you and you are proud to show them around.  There are ups and downs, but your adjustment is real.  The new place and your new identity within it becomes part of who you are.

Everything is different, and so are you.

And now I have a question for you… did your beautiful and painful adjustment to your new culture ‘ruin’ your old life?  Of course it did.  You can never go back to where and who you were before.  But would you ever want to?  Perhaps at some moments.  Perhaps when the child wakes up again in the middle of the night, perhaps when the new defiant phase seems to be lasting forever, perhaps when you wish that getting an hour to yourself wasn’t so darn difficult.  But overall?  Would you ever want to go back?

****

We are in California as I write, visiting family, and our oldest daughter has been sick for days.  She is hypoglycemic (we think) and the combination of messed-up schedule (i.e. we don’t know when to feed her) and the demands of her immune system have been brutal on her poor little body… and the coughing and whining is virtually nonstop.  My husband and I are at the end of ourselves, which leads us to pray more.

Last night she was up at 2 a.m. again, and I got her spoonfuls of sticky tylenol syrup again, and sang her to sleep again, and prayed that the coughing would stop… you got it, again.  I was almost delirious as I am a person Who Needs Sleep, but my husband is also sick so I was the night parent on call.  Miracle of miracles, she fell back asleep.

When she awoke (another miracle… at 8:30) she called for me, and I crawled into bed with her.  She snuggled into my chest, right into the place where her almost-5 year old body fits perfectly, and we just laid there together.  We laid there for a few minutes, and then we began the day.

And you know what?  I’m tired.  And she isn’t out of the woods yet.  Today there will be whining and tonight there will be a wake-up.  I will be grumpy and mean, and then I will pray… over and over again.  But then she will snuggle into my chest.  She will say Mama.  At some point, tomorrow or maybe the next day, she will act silly again.  We will laugh together.

And in the ruining of my life I will find joy.


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Three Steps Forward and Two Steps Back

Children are not very short adults.

If this was a hypothesis and a researcher visited my home,  it would take her about 30 minutes to gather enough evidence.  I can see her entering data into the computer… irrational requests per minute, length of time spent arguing about who will be the baby tiger and who will be the baby lion, and magnitude of screaming related to nonavailability of the pink cup.  Conclusion: Children are not very short adults.  End of experiment.

And thank-you-captain-obvious.

However.

If this is the case, why do I continually, incessantly, repeatedly assume and often insist that they SHOULD be acting like adults?

For example:

“Subject A” is three years old and had breakfast at 7 a.m.  It is now 10 a.m. and her mother is attempting to squeeze in one more errand before heading home for a snack.  In line at the library, where the mother is attempting to pay her monthly set of fines, the three year old is twirling around the line-marking poles and pushes one over.  The librarians all glare at the mother who glares at the child and whispers loudly, “stop it, get over here, if you want a snack when we get home, stop it right now.”  At the mention of “snack” (big mistake), the child begins wailing (not in a whisper) about how hungry she is.   Now the mother, who is finally next in line, picks up the child and attempts to reason with her.  “Honey, I just need to do one more thing and then we’ll go home, I promise.  Just be quiet, please, we’re almost done.”  The child wails louder and louder until the mother, with librarian-eyes boring holes in her skull, finally gives up and drags the child home, berating her all the live long way.

Lovely, eh?

Now, if children are not very short adults, what might we actual adults need to keep in mind about them?  Here are four things that I probably need to post on a wall in my house.

One.  In the internal struggle between basic needs and logical thought, a child’s “primal beast” self is going to win every time.  Tired?  Hungry?  Thirsty?  Wait ten more minutes because of these logically compelling reasons?  Not likely.  Not impossible, and I’m starting to suspect that this gets more balanced as they get older, but with a three and a four year old, my money is on the beast.

Two.  Adults are motivated by timeliness (okay, most adults); children, not so much.  Wouldn’t it be fun for a parent to count how many times we say something like “Hurry up” or “We’re going to be late” in one day?  Not that we ever would–it would take too much time.

Three.  Children are consistently inconsistent.  Have you ever had your social butterfly hide behind your legs when their dear great-grandmother (who they only see once every few months) asks them about their favorite animal at the zoo?  Why was it okay for me to pick out your clothes yesterday, but today (when we are late to school) it leads to a major screaming fit?  Why do you turn up your cute little nose at the same dinner that you loved last week?  Why can’t you JUST MAKE SENSE?

Four.  Empathy is not a natural quality of the world-revolves-around-me stage of development.  For example, when a child who is also (ugh) a morning person bounces into your room at 6 a.m. and wants to play kangaroo family, it’s hard to explain that Mama needs a little more time to wake up because Mama has a really bad cold and Mama was up coughing in the middle of the night and Mama is not a morning person anyway and could you please stop jumping on Mama?????

Not that such a thing ever happens.

So.  What am I NOT saying here?  I am not saying that we shouldn’t teach our children things like empathy, self-control, responsibility, logic  etc.  What else are we doing as parents as we guide our kids through their younger years?

But…

As we guide them and try to teach them that the library is a Quiet Place, do we ever get a little impatient?  Do we ever forget that these lessons are going to take years, that three steps forward and two steps back is still forward progress, and that you can’t have the beautiful parts of childhood without some annoyances along the way?  Do we ever expect them to behave like very short adults?

I do.  This I confess.  And this is what I want to turn from, degree by degree, day by day.  Why?  Because maybe as I turn I’ll catch another glimpse of my children being children, and it will make me smile instead of groan.  Maybe I’ll stop long enough to appreciate them, to love them, and maybe I’ll even have the time to tell them so.

Maybe.  We’ll just have to wait and find out.  Good thing that adults are SO good at waiting.