Tag: Grace

4Dec

You Gotta Fight For Your Right To Party

I’m starting the day by trying to get my head around this Frederick Buechner quote:

“The grace of God means something like: ‘Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are, because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.’”

Actually, his entire definition of grace is worth mulling over on repeat, because I know that I will only ever be able to grasp its meaning in flashes, during unintentional slips in the vigilance of my mind. Logic tells me grace is absurd, and the perspective grown from the sum of my experiences and inner workings tells me that grace is a big fat lie. Glennon Melton’s latest blog post explained that in order to be love to others, we first have to be still and let ourselves feel how beloved we are, and something in me immediately began fighting against her words. Feel myself beloved? Accept that the party wouldn’t have been complete without me? Let the implications of a divine love directed quite personally and deliberately toward me slip past my defenses?

No. I can’t do it. I absolutely cannot.

I can feel myself broken, accept that my role on earth is that of a penitent, and let every implication of humanity’s moral failure permeate my outlook. That I can do, and I’ve been honing my self-shaming skills for three decades now. I’m good at it. I’ve gotten comfortable with my brand of existential despair. Because of this, I’ve never been able to stay in the same room with grace for very long, no matter how hard I’ve tried to kick back and relax in its company. Grace is on par with douchstaches and post-shower selfies for making me uncomfortable.

Buechner closes out his piece like this: “There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can only be yours if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.” His words flash me straight back to Sunday School surer than a time machine. I grew up schooled in the “free gift of salvation,” and I alternately mocked and pitied people too dense to just take the damn gift. Why wouldn’t you take eternal solace, wrapped and ribboned and lying right there on the church doorstep? I had no capacity back in my fundamentalist days for seeing all the strings attached to that gift, nor could I see that some people simply didn’t have the strength to pick up such a thing. Myself included.

I see it now, what a complex process acceptance can be, right on the outermost verge of impossibility. I feel as incapable this morning as I ever have to claim ownership of the love that people like Buechner and Glennon and Jesus say is mine. I feel a thousand shades of undeserving. I feel that life should always be hard for me and tinted with sadness. I feel that love is less true than the circumstances of my past and the struggles of my present. I feel and feel and feel, so much and so strongly.

As deeply as I feel, though, I know that emotional impression does not equal reality. It’s my perspective, yes, and I’ll always have to operate within my own limits, but I can occasionally glimpse the truth beyond myself. And what I know to be true, even when my feelings rally in protest, is that every life is valuable. Every human is a work of art, a treasure, and though others may undervalue that treasure or mistreat it or pawn it off for pennies or forge it into a weapon, that person’s intrinsic worth never lessens.

Which means, necessarily, that I am a treasure too.

This is so hard to accept. The only thing harder to accept is that God is the one treasuring me. God is so often distant and mysterious, more concept than being, and while I’ll take that over wrathful-micromanager-God any day, it’s difficult to feel loved by a concept. Encountering God as a being, as a Her (which I prefer to Him, as it doesn’t carry the same religious baggage for me) takes concentration and time and the staggering effort of pushing my preconceptions and feelings aside. This just seems to reinforce my impression that life is meant to be a Sylvia Plath poem.

Sometimes, however, I do manage to bridge the gap between my theology and my heart, and when that happens, living becomes as easy as drawing breath. Whenever grace finds a new inlet into my perspective, everything unclenches for a while. I can see it all clearly, how you matter and I matter with the same extravagant worth in our world, how we are loved, how we are going to be okay. Gravity starts to lose its grip on my mind.

Inevitably, all the damaged and wary factions regroup to close my borders down again. Denying happiness is a form of self-protection, I suppose. But every moment that I spend in the greater reality of light and love makes it easier for me return in the future (not easy, mind you, just a side-shuffle this way from impossible).

This morning, I find myself wishing for possibly the trillionth time in my short life that spirituality could be a respite for me instead of my daily battleground. All these struggles against my own mind, all the old wounds that need rebandaging, all the feelings that so effectively block out chances at joy… I wish I could just stop, stop trying and stop believing in one fell swoop. Existence would be so much easier.

But it would be easier in the way that dry seabeds are easier than oceans to navigate—simpler, but devoid of life. If I were to cut grace from my soul’s vocabulary, my internal landscape would deaden into a dust-cracked field and the moments of transcendence that I most value would become untrue. I wouldn’t have to fight anymore, but I wouldn’t have anything for which to fight either. I would shrink to nothing. I know this; I’ve been at the knife’s edge of that nothing before.

Which leaves me with no choice other than to consider Buechner’s words as true, to walk them through my mind over and over in hopes that the guards will start to recognize them and lay down their arms more readily.

“Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are, because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.”

Grace. Her grace. A party invitation worth battling to accept.

29Nov

Tea and Sympathy

I’m feeling a little fragile here on the other side of Thanksgiving, the kitchen still piled with mixing bowls even after three dishwasher loads (which my longsuffering and all-around-awesome husband did when I wasn’t looking) and Christmas flurrying in the 30-day forecast.

I shouldn’t feel fragile. We were gifted yesterday with a gorgeous, full-volume American Thanksgiving at a friend’s house, complete with rare-to-us delicacies like green bean casserole and (be still my heart) pecan-crusted sweet potatoes, after which we played Balderdash. No game does my word-nerdy expat heart quite as much good as Balderdash. Full of good food and laugh lines, I came home and queued up the Sufjan Christmas playlist, and I should be glowing every bit as brightly as the snowflake lights strung up around town.

Should doesn’t have much sway over my emotional life though, and I’m trusting wise women like Anne Lamott and Glennon Melton who say that it is in fact possible to sit with uncomfortable emotions, offer them tea and sympathy, and live to tell about the encounter. It’s a tough challenge, this. I prefer the Freakout And Then Disengage approach, subjecting my fragile illogical feelings to a tirade and then opening Facebook so I can stop interacting with them for a while. I’m not sure that this is the healthiest approach, however, and it is exactly as effective as covering my own eyes to prevent a monster from seeing me. It doesn’t make the thing go away.

Today’s fragility is a mixed bag, really. It’s sadness that we won’t be with family for the holidays mixed with sparkling anticipation of time with friends and of our own little open-ended Christmas. It’s abundant gratefulness for the people in our lives contrasting with good old-fashioned introvert exhaustion. It’s nausea of body and soul over a confrontation that I find myself obligated to pursue tempered with the assurance that everything most important to me is okay regardless of how it turns out. I’m hopeful and anxious and tired and enthused all at once, and I suppose, looking at it in those terms, that a little breakability is only to be expected.

Have some tea, self. You’re doing just fine.

Your turn now. How are you holding up here in these unpredictable holiday waters? If you could use a little tea and sympathy for your own fragile illogical feelings, come on over; I have plenty to share.

22May

[De]Constructing Art

There are the destroyers—

the rejection letter

the pregnant pause

the allegiance to duty

the comparative streak

the checking of stats

the boxing-in of style

the commercialization

the resignation

the self-doubt, self-deprecation, self-imposed silence

the slow drift away from joy

And there are the restorers—

the swell of intuition

the note of kinship

the devotion to whimsy

the confident voice

the savoring of time

the releasing of status quo

the authenticity

the intention

the self-care, self-celebration, self-administered grace

the alchemy of water and light into color

17Apr

On Mothering Grown Women Before They’re Grown

My girls have a good dad, no doubt about it. He teaches them how to throw the Aerobie and ask good questions. He sits cross-legged on the rug to build LEGO police-station-chemistry-lab-recording-studio-princess-schools according to request. He turns up the Dropkick Murphys loud when Sophie’s in the car and gives Natalie special computer programming assignments (pretty much everything about our girls’ personalities can be summed up in this sentence). He knows what makes them tick, and he encourages streaks of independence that I’d never even noticed. He fosters their creativity, respects their privacy, and displays their construction pencil holders in his office. All girls should be so lucky.

My girls have a good mom too. The Law of Self-Deprecation says I probably shouldn’t be saying this, but it’s the truth, and I know it. I tie three sets of aprons and show the girls how to measure and whisk and roll cookie dough in cinnamon sugar. I instigate Jamiroquai dance parties in the living room, tickle-chase escaping fugitives, and read Roald Dahl aloud before bed. I teach Natalie about story arcs and Sophie about “c-a-t,” and I tell them they’re beautiful every single day. Dan and I aren’t perfect parents by any stretch of the imagination, but our girls know we love them and like them and want them around. We’re doing a few somethings right.

But there is one aspect of parenting girls in particular that moves me to contemplate tequila as a valid breakfast option. For all the positive things Dan and I are teaching our girls about themselves through our attention and encouragement, I am also teaching the girls about themselves by how I treat myself, and I can tell you, the message coming across from me to me is rarely of the positive variety.

While it’s easy for me to focus on the features that make my girls inside-and-out beautiful—Natalie’s midnight blue eyes, Sophie’s whole-body smile, the glimmers of kindness and joy that light each of their demeanors like a personal aurora borealis—my filters tune to the negative when I look at myself. I only notice the stray eyebrow hairs, the unflattering curves, the tired slump of my shoulders, the frustration that flares up like lava bursts. I don’t see anything worth celebrating or encouraging in myself, and this would feel pious and admirably ascetic if not for the fact that my girls are absorbing my brand of womanhood like sponges.

Their eyes go round as they watch me sweep on my mascara, and I remember that same combination of curiosity and awe from my own girlhood while I watched my mother dab on moisturizer and replace it in the mystical realm of grown-up toiletries under the sink. The secrets to my future self lived under that sink. Tucked among the perfume bottles and tampons, womanhood whispered to me about beauty and strength and sensuality and fragility, and it had my mother’s voice.

Now it has mine.

In the contours of my figure, my daughters glimpse the trajectory of their own bodies. In my speech, they catch inflections and sayings that will one day trip off their own mama-tongues. Each of my habits is a clue to their own approaching adulthood, each of my mannerisms a point on the map, and like it or not, I’m their first lesson about how to be a woman. Good God in heaven.

I never anticipated mothering grown women before my oldest finished second grade, but here we are on this express route to the future, and when I seethe with impatience over my own limitations, I’m teaching my adult daughters that they don’t deserve grace, and when I mutter into the mirror about my physical imperfections, I’m telling these one-day women that they are not beautiful just as they are, and when I ignore my own needs to the point of burnout, I’m showing them that self-care is not a priority. My soliloquies are their screenplays, and the implications knock the breath right out of me.

I feel like this shouldn’t be such a big deal. The solution is as simple as treating myself the way I want my girls to be treated—with gentleness, compassion, joy, and the occasional spoonful of Nutella. Everybody wins, right? Except that I’m me, so nothing is ever that simple, and the reality is that I’m far more comfortable with self-deprecation than I am with self-care. I’m good at listing my faults, grimacing at my reflection, and jabbing unkind sentiments into the soft belly of my mind. They produce a kind of half-vindictive, half-vanquished satisfaction. Tenderness though… it has always felt like a guilty pleasure, emphasis on the guilt.

Somewhere along the years, I picked up the notion that any scrap of kindness—even within the privacy of my own thoughts—must be earned through perfection. Patience and rest must each be purchased with intense stretches of achievement, and if I want that spoonful of Nutella, I’d better be sporting rock-hard abs. It’s my own personal works-based religion. I follow it like a spiritual devotee too. I’m so familiar with the liturgy of criticism that its sting almost feels like comfort by now, and the idea of psychological freedom is not enough of a motivator for me to revamp my self-image.

However, the idea of my daughters’ psychological freedom is. I’m almost angry that this is the answer, that I have to be comfortable in my own skin in order to raise daughters comfortable in theirs. I’d much rather refer them to a stack of self-help books or start a therapy fund, anything other than having to lead by example. I don’t want to have to spelunk the messy dark of my own emotional history to find the reasons why I can’t smile when I look in the mirror. I don’t want to march into shame’s territory and fight to win myself back.

And it’s not like my girls will be doomed to a future of bitterness and self-loathing if I don’t figure this out. They’re already thoughtful and resilient individuals, and part of their growing up experience was always going to be figuring out who they are apart from their parents. I would be either very arrogant or very naïve to assume that they are my carbon copies, destined to play out my own life choices.

Using their individuality as an excuse to avoid doing the hard work on myself is a cop-out though. Even the most curmudgeonly gatekeepers in my mind know deep down that learning to love myself is worth the struggle. It’s worth working through profound discomfort in order to make my daughters’ first perspective on womanhood one of kindness and joy and wholeheartedness. It’s worth charging back into that formidable battle against shame in order to give them the gift of a mom who’s happy to exist as herself.

(Yes? Yes.)

I’m writing this from the entrance of the emotional messy cave—no answers at all, just a few half-baked ideas and a significant amount of trepidation. I’m perplexed as to why it should be this hard to start seeing myself a little more as a unique and valuable human worthy of love and a little less as Jabba the Hutt, but the Real Beauty Sketches video going around (have you seen it yet?) proves that I am not alone in holding a distorted and negative view of myself. We women are masterful at finding fault in ourselves. Glossy cover models and online mommy wars prey on our insecurities while religious pundits promote our inferiority. We react by judging each other in a misguided attempt to boost our own statuses, and it’s no wonder that so few of us can fathom the idea that we might be worthy of celebration or admiration or love.

What I can fathom, however, is that my precious little girls are worthy. They don’t have to do a single blessed thing to earn their lovability; they are themselves, and that’s enough. I cherish the ways their minds work, their bodies are taking shape, and their hearts expanding, and I dearly hope that they can grow up seeing themselves through the same lens of happy awe that I do. It bears repeating that they are themselves, and that’s enough—enough to warrant compassion and respect and appreciation and understanding and spoonfuls of Nutella and a personal cheerleading squad and full-out, unconditional, never-changing, no-holds-barred love—

and if my girls are worthy just because they are who they are, then it’s time I accept as truth that I am too.

11Apr

Birds of the Air, Hamsters of the Faith

When I wrote the following entry in my journal this morning, I was intending it just for me. I already had a blog post in the works, and I just wanted to get these thoughts off my chest first. However, when I caught myself writing that I need to stop apologizing for the way my mind works, I decided to stick it to shame and let you into my real Thursday morning headspace. Welcome.

~~~

I was listening to This American Life while straightening up the house and making my breakfast this morning when a short story by Shalom Auslander came on. In the story, two pet hamsters are starving to death and trying to make sense of why their owner is neglecting them. One of the hamsters says their owner has forgotten them, and he tries to forage for his own food with only limited success. The other hamster says it’s a test of faith; he sees signs of the owner’s care which, when successfully debunked by the unbelieving hamster, become additional tests of faith. He prays in thanks to the owner for starving him in order to show him his sin of ungratefulness. Finally, as the hamster is praying, the owner comes in the door. He’s with a woman, and as they fumble their way toward the bedroom, he turns off the lights.

I know that Shalom Auslander came from a severe Orthodox Jewish background that makes mine look almost liberal and that he has no shortage of bitterness toward God. I totally get it. And it’s because I totally get it that I felt sacrilegious and scared listening to the hamster allegory. The story didn’t denounce the existence of God or his roles as creator and provider; it simply made the argument that God doesn’t care about us, and that hits too close to my own doubts for comfort.

When times are hard, as these last two years in particular have been for us, we’re confronted with three possible perspectives. One is that the hardship proves that there is no God, that we’re utterly alone in this world. The second is that the hardship proves that God doesn’t care about us or that he will only help us if we prove our worthiness by pulling ourselves out of the hole. The third is that the hardship is part of a bigger plan for our own good and that God’s care for us is a constant we can cling to for comfort.

The first option doesn’t work for me because I do believe in God. I can’t help it. I’ve seen too much evidence of a divine force participating in our lives to doubt God’s existence. Choosing between the second two perspectives is tricky though. On one hand, hardship sucks. I know that if Natalie or Sophie were going through extreme financial and relational stress and I had the power to alleviate their burdens, I would do it in a heartbeat. That seems like the only loving option to me. But on the other hand, I know it’s ridiculously subjective to say that my displeasure with circumstances makes them categorically bad. I don’t know the bigger picture, and the idea is that God does, so we can trust that the ultimate outcome will be good… “good” in a philosophical sense only God can understand, that is. It’s never far from my mind that God’s idea of good could involve our destitution or death, and trying to call any pain that we experience “good” because God knows best makes me feel as pathetic and delusional as the praying hamster from Auslander’s story. Granted, we’re not destitute or dead right now, and I can’t go basing my view of God on other people’s circumstances that I only glimpse from the outside.

Obviously, I vacillate a lot between the two beliefs—God loves us, he loves us not. I prefer the loving option, but when all evidence seems to point to the contrary, I don’t know what to stake my trust on. I don’t have the kind of faith that can declare God good and caring no matter what happens to us. It does matter what happens to us! We matter! Our pain matters! When religious institutions try to placate people like me into blind faith with platitudes and Christianese and churchy aphorisms, it makes me want to abandon ship. We are not such spiritual beings that our physical realities don’t count. We have to have some kind of reason for our beliefs, and at least for me, faith comes from seeing a spiritual God interact with our physical world. Call me a weak Christian, but I can’t just glibly attribute both good and bad circumstances to God’s love. I can’t.

Some days, I take comfort from what Jesus said about God caring for us, meeting our daily needs, and answering our requests as a loving father would. Other days, I can’t stop considering that Jesus said these things shortly before he was tortured to death. Honestly, what am I supposed to take from that?

I feel like I should apologize to God or Jesus or the Pope or someone for putting that last paragraph into words, but I’m tired of apologizing for my mind. I’m tired of trying to silence questions and misgivings that don’t fit within church-approved mindsets. Censoring my doubts doesn’t make them go away; it just makes me live dishonestly, and how can I love God with all of my mind if I keep trying to lock parts of it in the basement? For better or worse, I’m stuck with this brain until death do us part. The tendency to overthink and question everything is hardwired into who I am, and apologizing for who I am is nothing less than deferring to shame.

So this is me, authentic and unapologetic, admitting that I can’t figure out this morning whether I’m one of the hamsters from Auslander’s story or one of the birds of the air from Jesus’s sermon. If I decide that God is indeed taking care of us no matter how life looks through the porthole of today, am I shutting down logic and deluding myself? Or if I decide that God has left us to fend for ourselves, am I discounting the many forms that grace takes in our lives?

This no man’s land between the two perspectives is not an ideal place to set up camp, but it’s not unfamiliar territory for me. In fact, I’ve often encountered God here in the breathing space between the opposing swirls of doctrine and rationale and emotional charge. Grace for now is accepting that my doubt-disposed brain is fearfully and wonderfully made and resting in the certainty that life does not depend on my perception of it. What’s more, God’s character does not depend on my understanding of it. Either we are being taken care of or we are not; my outlook changes nothing except how I feel… and what I feel right now is a blanket of peace wrapped around my questions, a gentle assurance that I don’t have to have God all figured out. This, more than anything else this morning, is helping me to navigate back toward the belief that whatever my reality right now, whatever my physical circumstances or spiritual uncertainties, he does care.

5Apr

Cloud Control

I have a desk and a lamp and a chair that cradles my temperamental back like a luxury, but more often than not, I find myself set up here at the kitchen table. On one side of me, a coffee mug empty but for a smudge of foam, two pen-scribbled notebooks, the Bible I always tote in just in case my soul feels strong enough to open it. On the other side, glass doors closed against a granite-gray day. In front of me, my computer and dusky blue nails typing a haphazard melody. Behind me, pots and pans, possibly every pot and pan in the world, piled in sculptured odes to spaghetti sauce and barbecue chicken and priorities that always seem to fall just short of dishwashing.

I have letters to write and lessons to plan and approximately 30,000 hours of IRS instructions to decipher before Tax Day, and some might argue that our empty fridge and overflowing sink necessitate some motherly attention, but instead I’ve been watching iridescent points of rain pattern our balcony. It takes nothing more than this, nothing more than a leak in the sky to remind me just how weary I am.

A few years ago for my birthday hope-list, I resolved to invite guests over once a week for the following year… and I did. Some weeks, we had company for dinner three nights in a row, and the whole experience fit our family’s values and hopes like a signature style. We couldn’t keep it up though. Our job situations changed after that year, and as the worries of keeping our family afloat have compounded, our ability to reach beyond ourselves has plummeted. As we approach each new weekend, my plans alternate between trying to catch up on the bazillion errands and projects we never have time for during the week and grasping at the chance to rest. I can’t imagine summoning the energy to make our home an open invitation again.

Hospitality is one of the core values that Dan and I have always shared, and I know that he would have friends over tonight if I were willing. But to be really, painfully, embarrassingly honest, I’m not willing. I’m not willing to invite friends to view the laundry draped over every available drying surface in our house or the toothpaste splattered across our bathroom sinks or the congregation of gym bags in the hall or the giveaway pile that’s swallowing our guest room whole. I’m not okay with touching up my makeup and switching my conversational filters to Italian and acting bright and welcoming at the time of day I’m really only up for changing into yoga pants and losing myself in the sofa cushions. I don’t have it in me to pretend I’m on top of our family life enough these days to include other people in it.

So our doors stay closed, and we try to make our life fit without its signature style, and I watch the rain give our balcony the only cleaning it’s had in eight months while this weariness seeps right into my blood stream.

And I know I’m not the only one. I’ve seen the same haggard tightness clutch around the expressions of friends all over town, and I’ve caught glimpses of it in the social media feeds of friends all over the world, and this weariness, it’s a universal cloud cover, a granite-gray weight in the air. We don’t typically admit to it though. While busy is an acceptable, maybe even admirable condition, weary comes across as pitiful, and how can we add one more social failure to the list? How can we open up such a vulnerable reality to criticism?

A large part of me wants to delete this post right now, not even finish. I’d much rather continue saying “I’m just busy” and collecting understanding nods. But if I don’t admit that this busyness has grown into something other, something as unwieldy as the sky and draining as a disease, then I’m perpetuating the idea that it’s not okay to show what’s really going on behind the scenes. I’m holding up a façade between us and perhaps even making you think you have to hold one up too.

You don’t have to though, at least not here. This place is for practicing authenticity and chasing down grace and remembering that we’re all in this human experience together. More than anyone, I need the reminder, but perhaps you need it too—a squeeze to your shoulder assuring you that you’re not the only one plumb out of energy, that you’re not defective or pitiful or alone. I might not be to the place yet of showing you my literal behind-the-scenes (I don’t even want to look at my kitchen sink!), but cracking open the door on my weariness and letting you in feels like a step closer to the community I’ve been missing, and wouldn’t you know it, the clouds are finally cracking open too.

 

22Mar

Parenting: The Big, The Bad, and The Gentle

Writing yesterday’s post felt like channeling thunder. What I wanted to say was so big and so emotionally charged that it was all I could do to keep up with the words. (Just ask Dan how many times I jumped up from lunch to add one more sentence.) Creating like that, as a conduit rather than a miner, is every writer’s dream scenario, yet once the publish button was clicked and the adrenaline dissipated, I began to feel small and dangerously breakable. I lay awake a long time last night fighting the self-protective urge to turn on my computer and start deleting. Putting out something so personal yet so controversial for the whole Internet to critique felt like one of the dumbest decisions I’ve ever made.

But then this morning dawned, as mornings tend to do, and the world feels like a gentler place. In fact, gentleness is exactly what’s on my mind today. You see, when I first found out I was pregnant with Natalie, my greatest fear was that I would fall into the same parenting patterns I had grown up with. I knew that abused children often grow up to become abusers themselves, their brokenness an indelible part of their identities, and the thought terrified me. I knew I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I perpetuated the same kind of violence and mind control on my own children, but I didn’t know the first thing about parenting without using those tactics. I literally had no idea what I was doing.

The next part is very hard to admit considering what I shared yesterday, but I did try spanking as a disciplinary measure for a while when Natalie was young. I believed that if I didn’t, my sweet girl would become one of those children enacting demonic death scenes in the candy aisle at Target. I wanted her to have firm boundaries, and I knew of no way to enforce them other than a swat or two when she misbehaved. It was a far cry from the drawn-out beatings of my childhood, and I wanted to be proud of myself for punishing without abuse, but my primary emotion was still guilt.

I felt terrible for causing my daughter pain, however slight, and on the rare occasion when my frustration level made me eager to cause her that pain, I felt like a monster. Using spanking as a way to control my child went against every mothering instinct I had and required me to silence my heart. I wasn’t abusing my daughter, at least not in the way I thought of abuse at the time, but I was using the same line of reasoning as abusers from my past—assert your dominance, control your child, condition her to be unquestioningly obedient. The realization that I had been toeing the fundamentalist line all along churned like a live bat in my stomach.

I abandoned the practice almost overnight. I worried that I was giving up the one effective tool in a parent’s arsenal, but I was done deactivating my mama-heart in order to conform to advice I knew to be harmful. Furthermore, I was done viewing my children as military recruits who I needed to squelch and intimidate and drill into my image. I wanted to start seeing their independence as an unfolding gift rather than a threat and their curious, opinionated little minds as equally important as my own. My parenting style needed a makeover.

I wanted to write about this today because I know some of you come from backgrounds similar to my own and may be wrestling with your own fears and general feelings of lostness about how to parent without abuse. If that describes you, I just want to wrap you up in a virtual bear hug and assure you that there is hope. There is so much hope, friend. You can be a firm and effective parent without ever having to resort to violence or emotional manipulation. None of us is ever going to achieve a perfect parenting record free of regret, but I can promise you this—you will never regret choosing gentleness.

Eight years into mothering now, I have adopted some gentle parenting strategies that continue to work well for our family:

1)    Natural consequences. Dan and I want our girls to grow up with a clear understanding of how their choices matter, so we try to facilitate natural consequences whenever reasonable. This doesn’t always mean something negative; for example, Natalie knows that if she gets ready for school quickly, she’ll have time for her favorite breakfast. On the other hand, if she dawdles or procrastinates, she’ll be scarfing down a banana en route. If Sophie refuses to put on a jacket when we go out, she’ll be chilly, and if she doesn’t eat the food on her plate, she’ll be hungry until the next meal. If the girls can’t resolve a sibling dispute, they will have to take a break from each other. If one of them hurts the other, she will have to find a way to make it right and mend the relationship. I could list a million other examples, but you get the idea; rarely do we come across a behavior problem without some kind of logical consequence that makes traditional punishment unnecessary.

2)    Give and take. Once as a teenager, I arrived early to a babysitting gig and was shocked to hear the little boy ask his mother for a second yogurt and the mother answer “Sure!” The supremacy of “No” was so fundamental to the parenting philosophies of my childhood that it blew me away to hear a mom breezily honoring her child’s request. That moment has stuck with me, and it often comes to mind when the girls ask for something or when they assert their opinions in contrast to mine. It reminds me to pause and consider the validity of their desires, and I’ve grown increasingly less afraid of the word “Sure!” Fundamentalism would call that giving in, but my relationship with my children is only a tug of war if I make it so. Practically speaking, give-and-take means considering the girls’ counterpoints about why they don’t need a nap, saying yes to that nibble of chocolate at breakfast, and working together to solve family issues. Not everything needs to be non-negotiable.

3)    Preemptive measures. When my girls get particularly cantankerous, I know they haven’t been getting enough sleep. Unfortunately, naptime has a tendency to turn into a battle when the girls are already overtired, so the smoothest way I’ve found to remedy cantankerousness is to make sure they get enough sleep in the first place. (When they get at least 10 hours of sleep a night, they are generally cheerful and easygoing all day. Less than that, and they turn into land piranhas by mid-afternoon.) Likewise, I know the girls tend to act out if they aren’t getting enough attention from their dad and I, so a little preventative play time can stave off a lot of interpersonal struggle. Anywhere that I notice a pattern of unwelcome behavior on the girls’ part—defiance when it’s time to leave the playground, whiny malaise after swim class—I look for a way to preempt the problem in the future (give them a 5-minute heads-up before we leave the park, pack snacks in the gym bag). Knowing what is likely to trigger unpleasantness in my girls lets me remedy many situations before they ever start.

4)    Grace. Kids can be volatile creatures, caught up without a moment’s notice into a tempest of rage or an exhausted meltdown. I was taught that these episodes are unacceptably sinful behavior warranting extra punishment, but the reality is that young children go into meltdown mode because their emotional maturity is still developing and they don’t yet know how to handle surges of anger or helplessness or disappointment. For me, parenting with grace often means looking past “unacceptable behavior” and comforting the deeper issues at play. (I’ve shared stories about this here and here, and Erika’s account of unorthodox grace is a must-read.) Parenting with grace also means extending forgiveness to myself when I mess up, as I do frequently, and accepting my girls’ no-strings-attached forgiveness as well. Our relationship works the best when grace is flowing both ways.

Grace flowing both ways

These are just a few big-picture strategies, and I would love to hear your gentle parenting tips in the comments. We can all benefit from each other’s trial-and-error learning, non? If you’re interested in more on this subject, I’d highly recommend my friend Melissa’s series on Gentle Parenting Tools, and there are plenty of online resources for learning positive discipline techniques on sites like The Center for Effective Discipline and Gentle Christian Mothers. And please hear me—if you’re afraid of perpetuating the cycle of child abuse, hold that terrified, love-thirsty part of your heart close because awareness is the first step toward change, and you’re already there. You are not trapped in a style of parenting that goes against your instincts and betrays your own aversion to pain. There are other options, there is grace enough to lessen the sting of regret, and there is always, always hope.

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