Bleak Midwinter Hospitality

I pulled up to the house and placed my hastily written directions on the passenger seat beside me.

Those directions had been scribbled down with excitement and perhaps a little bit of desperation. An invitation had been extended to my children and me and there was something in my scribble that showed how greatly I wanted the invitation to come into fruition.

My family had recently moved (again.) This was a first prospect of friendship in the area. The woman had come up to me several days prior, and after hearing I was new to the area and living close to her, generously asked my children and me over.

And so my sons and I walked up to her front door and were immediately met by the faces of two smiling children and our kind host, who all welcomed us in. As the kids scampered off to play, the woman and I quickly began one of those effortless conversations that blend both newness and familiarity.

I was incredibly happy to be in the company of another. Anyone who has been the new person in town understands the significance of welcoming kindness. After settling in though, the prospects of a budding local friendship changed dramatically.

With a kind of unassuming vulnerability, this woman shared that both her and her husband had lost their jobs. As I began to take in my surroundings, I noticed the sparsely furnished home and what few toys the children had in their trove. We talked and more was revealed – of long shift work and many attempts to find adequate employment. Of a home soon to be put on the market out of necessity, and an imminent move to another state to seek family support.

This would not be a nearby friendship. She and her family would be moving in less than a month.

My heart ached both for her hardships and the loss of this fleeting connection. There are not many souls who possess this kind of graciousness. There are not many who would invite a stranger over in the midst of so much vulnerability.

“You must stay for dinner!” She exclaimed later as I began to motion that my children and I would be leaving.

“Oh my goodness, I couldn’t do that!” I said and quickly felt guilty, wondering if I had overstayed and pressured her into feeding us. The host quickly put this fear to rest. She persisted with joy. This woman very clearly would be sad for us to leave without providing us a meal.

She motioned for me to come into their kitchen to continue our visit. The refrigerator was opened and the meager contends were revealed.

Bread

Milk

Hotdogs

Apples

Cheese

This was all that was in the fridge. This was all she had to give.

But within a few moments the hotdogs were being microwaved and enfolded in slices of bread. Milk was poured for the children and water for the adults. Apples were sliced, cheese served.

I accepted the plate which had been so freely given, and realized that a meal had never cost anyone so dearly as the meal being provided by this family.

We shared in more conversation and enjoyed watching our little ones delight in one another.

Finally, it was time to leave. Hugs were given. Gratitude was exchanged for the company shared.

One brief and vulnerable exchange, the finest example of true hospitality I’ve ever experienced.

Bleak Midwinter Hospitality

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The bleak midwinter landscape casts a pall for many of us as we pack away the cheerful decorations that accompany the Christmas season. We watch in stillness and perhaps a little dismay as the inviting lights and open doors that have surrounded our lives throughout the month of December disappear for the next eleven months.

For many, this is the hardest time of year. The dreary weather, and the departure of “faithful friends who are dear to us” can make us look around and wonder what we can possibly do to fill the void. The void that had been filled with closeness, community and the beauty of the holiday season.

It’s Christmastime when we all try to put our best faces forward. Our homes are trimmed, our faces jolly, our purses a little more generous than usual.  We welcome and invite and attend one another in festivities. We are ready at this time to welcome people into our lives because we feel we are the best versions of ourselves. We love for others to come over when we can provide beauty and plenty.

Now, in the deep winter, we may be tempted to retreat. It’s cold outside and we are feeling not quite so jolly. We are probably tired and fatigued, and a little fatter than we were a month ago. Our pants don’t fit as well. The goals we have set for the new year are in their most humble state.

Perhaps we should keep our doors shut for a while and hunker down. Hold off on reaching out and welcoming over those who surround us.

But my mind has been returning to that family’s example of hospitality, given at great cost, but with such pure generosity.

Is true hospitality about being ready, overflowing and prepared?

Or is it about something else entirely? Is it welcoming even when we are vulnerable? Giving even when we have little in reserve? Loving even when our hearts our full of the concerns of the world?

That first family who had welcomed me into their home had conditioned themselves to being so hospitable that even the bleakest of circumstances could not quell their giving spirit.

And now, when I’m feeling tired, and my children are crazy from too much sugar, I’m reminded that there is never a time when we shouldn’t give of ourselves and what we have to others.

In that way we can fill the void of the post-Christmas slump, by remembering our hearts can “repeat the sounding joy” by giving the whole year through.

 

Reflections on Turning Thirty and Being Happy

Originally published as a micro-blog on the Things I Teach My Children Facebook page

Baby girl, your mama is turning 30 soon.

This means absolutely nothing to your brand-new-self, but believe it or not, 30 is the age when a woman is supposed to start feeling “old”. She cracks jokes at her own expense, reaches for “anti-aging” creams to mask emerging wrinkles, and feels a lingering suspicion that she isn’t quite as desirable at 30 as she was at 29.

Sweet daughter, I have no idea how this has gone on for as long as it has…this “anti-aging”, youth obsessed standard that women are pressured into believing. In an age that is advocating for girls to possess positive body images and to always “dream big”, our society still bombards us with the message that being young is the ultimate desire for a woman.


When we turn 30, we are led to believe we should feel depressed instead of grateful. All that prime life left for us to live and we are made to feel past our prime.


Daughter, I’ve decided I’m simply not buying it. I’m not buying the anti-aging cream and I’m not buying this idea that women must always look and appear “young” to be of value. In fact, I’ve decided not only for my sake, but yours as well, that I will be loudly and proudly pro-aging for as long as I live.


When I turn 30, I plan to celebrate. I plan to be happy. I plan to be grateful to have lived and loved yet another year on this earth, even if it means my skin and body show the additional experience.

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And if ever I falter and wonder if I’m just full of hot air, I’ll look at your perfectly new face and remember it will be just as perfect when it is thirty years old.


And I hope you will celebrate and I hope you will be happy.

 

Myth of the Hysterical Woman

I was a twenty-one-year-old college student, several weeks away from getting married, when I suffered from “hysterical” appendicitis.

If the phrase hysterical appendicitis confuses you, be glad. You have not missed any basic tenant of human pathophysiology.

Before this “hysterical” episode, I had lived the first two decades of my life without a serious health condition or illness. Even the typical monthly struggles which many women endure were absent from my experience. I ate little, slept little, overworked and appeared to have a high level of functioning despite these poor choices. 

Instead of attributing my functioning to dumb luck, I assumed a rather high opinion of my pain tolerance and ability to push through physical and mental ailments. “The lady has no excuse” I would laughingly say to friends and shy away from any display of discomfort, pain or anxiety. These things could be managed by will power. I was not a hysterical young woman, but someone who was always in control. Always.

One day in December, I noticed a sharp pain in my abdomen. Odd in sensation, my mind attributed it to the inaugural skinny jeans I wore.  2009 fashions were treading new and uncharted territory. Time passed, the pain intensified, accompanied by dizziness, aching and fever. My fiancé voiced his concerns, but I had a final exam that evening and was not going to miss it. I insisted it was caused by trying to wear skinny jeans…

By the time of the exam, my fiancé was begging me to seek some kind of medical attention. I said “no” and hobbled off to take the test.  I was tough and could overcome this. After finishing, my professor noticed I appeared to be drooping off my chair and insisted I go home immediately. I don’t remember walking home, but I do remember collapsing in my apartment and having my roommate and fiancé both insist it was time to go to the hospital.

“Can you rate your pain on a scale of 1-10?” asked the triage nurse.

Shaking and feverish, my pride wavered. “I…I don’t know. This might sound silly, but it feels bad. Maybe, maybe 8?” I looked up and saw a skeptical look on her face. Then that same doubt, that same fear that grips a woman when she voices concern about herself came out. “Perhaps I’m being a little…”

“Hysterical?” the triage nurse said while nodding her head.

Her tone, her choice to finish my sentence with that word, effectively silenced me. It was everything I feared to be labeled as a woman.

I took a seat in the ER waiting room. Hours passed. People who appeared to be in far less pain were taken back. My fiancé, a young man who had not experienced the dismissive attitudes that follow his female cohorts, became irate. He continually asked why I wasn’t being seen. He was told I’d be taken back when it was time. Other people waiting began to move away from chairs near us for fear of catching the bubonic plague.

Finally a nurse took me back to an exam room. A raging fever and a localized area of pain led to testing.

Shortly thereafter a doctor came in and said my appendix was nearly ruptured and I would need to be moved into surgery immediately.

Like so many women, I felt greater relief at finally being believed than being diagnosed.

Right before the doctor turned to leave he asked how long I’d been waiting in the ER waiting room.

“Four hours.” my fiancé said angrily.

The doctor shook his head and walked out of the room. I never saw him again, but there was something in his brief display of indignation that has forever left me feeling grateful to him.

What happened to me that night in the ER happens to women on a continual basis. Doubted and patronized, we fear to advocate for ourselves. We experience situations when our voices are silenced, our sentences left to trail off, our concerns, pains or threats dismissed. We know we have already been diagnosed with female hysteria, a condition of a feeble mind that leads to anything we say being questioned and belittled.

From the moment a little girl is born, our society collectively assumes a tendency toward female hysteria.  Little girls’ tears and fits, their adolescent pains and anxieties, their grown up fears, attacks and health conditions are often thought an exaggeration.

What sad and tragic things have been left to unfold because of this attitude.

Several days after my appendectomy, I stared out the immense windows of the hospital lobby. A Christmas tree lit up the space, I fumbled with my engagement ring and was thinking some serious thoughts about how lucky I was to be walking out into the world again.

Then I saw the triage nurse walk past me on the street; the one who must have rated me a two on the pain scale and diagnosed me with hysteria. She appeared happy to be off work and had a bounce in her step. I felt enraged and wanted to run after her, tell her that I hadn’t been hysterical and that I shouldn’t have been left to wait hours in such pain. But I didn’t, of course. I still didn’t want to appear…hysterical.

And over the years my anger at the woman has subsided into a kind of remorseful understanding. I should have received timely medical attention and not been dismissed. I was not at fault for that. I also know I carried with me those same harmful dismissive attitudes about female pain and vulnerability

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Part of confronting the myth of female hysteria, that great pillar of sexism in our society, means acknowledging when our attitudes about will power and control over pain continually leave women in dangerous situations. I used to tell this story and laughing brag that I aced that exam with appendicitis. I don’t anymore. There’s nothing to brag about. Seeking medical attention or help from society in a time of pain or vulnerability is what should be bragged about and celebrated. Women should be supported and cheered when coming forward with their needs. Women and men should be cheered when immediately responding to these needs. Celebrating strength in silence and willful self-harm is only celebrating sexism.

We are in the midst of a cultural revolution, one led by women who are sharing their experiences of sexual, physical and medical trauma. These days as I notice my vanishing appendectomy scar, I wonder if we have finally begun the process of healing from the myth of the hysterical woman.

 

Rebel with a Cause: Teens and the Throw Away Youth Culture

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I’ve been hearing murmurs on the internet about recent changes to Teen Vogue. The publication is apparently now offering articles which discuss politics and current events. This is big news because it’s a departure from the kind of fluff material often geared toward adolescents.

So I took a gander at Teen Vogue’s Facebook page. I found articles on make-up, a comical amount revolving around Jenner and Kardashian family drama, a few helpful hygiene tips, horoscopes and a sex act “how-to guide”, which failed to disclose its serious health risks, but did manage to highlight a grossly inaccurate diagram of the female anatomy.

Well, that was a waste of life, I thought as I closed the page. Perhaps there were some articles of depth buried amidst the trash, but the trash clearly outweighed anything of substance. If Teen Vogue is being championed as a bastion of American adolescence then my heart goes out to teens. Their potential and capabilities are being underestimated in tragic proportions.

But before going further, I want to clarify that this article is not a rant about “young people these days.”

It’s a criticism of how we as adults frequently underestimate the capabilities of teenagers. It’s a harsh condemnation of those grown-ups who profit by promoting a reckless and superficial youth culture (here’s looking at you, Teen Vogue). Finally, it’s a reminder that we can never start early enough in affirming young people of their self-worth and capabilities.

The Teenage Brain

Developmentally teenagers are still in the midst of brain maturation. Amazingly enough, the human brain does not finish maturing until approximately age 25. This should evoke compassion and understanding from parents and educators when we encounter choices and behaviors that seem reckless or ill-conceived. The desire for a teen to be an adult before he or she has reached full maturity is certainly a legitimate cause of teenage angst.

But the level of teenage angst and drifting that our culture now experiences is a recent phenomenon. Certainly teenagers have always felt at odds with the older generations. Young people have always tended to act without the inhibitions of older people.  It’s only been in recent decades, however, that being a teenager has been defined by a rampant material culture, entertainment geared exclusively toward their age group, and an educational system which confines them together in close quarters without the normalizing influences of the outside world. The extreme pressure for teens to participate in extracurricular activities also consumes more time they could otherwise spend with other age groups.

As an adult, when I think of being a teenager in those terms it sounds like a ring in Dante’s Inferno.

Aren’t the teenage years meant for so much more than this?

Rebel with a Cause

I do not have teenage children. I’m actually about as far away from my adolescent years as my children are close to them.

Regardless of age, each of us can still vividly remember those emotions and thoughts which defined our adolescence. What did we crave as teenagers? Often we craved meaning and opportunities for self-expression, but felt confined. Confined by our educational environment, confined by the petty pressures to have whatever was trendy and popular, confined by the limited responsibilities entrusted to us by a society that saw us more as children than adults.

Is any of this avoidable? We have to hope that some of it is.

When my children are teenagers, there’s a few things I hope that they hear from the adults in their lives.

I hope they know that we *see* them. We see that they are young adults, not older children. Their desire for independence, self-autonomy and self-expression are good desires and should be received with respect and encouragement.

I want them to know that adults cannot fully understand the pressures they face. We didn’t grow up with social media. The throw-away sex culture has only intensified since we were teens. If they tell us we don’t “get it”, we’ll need to be honest and say we don’t completely understand.

When they seem focused or bogged down by petty youth culture, I hope there is a continuous discussion that they are worth so much more than the nonsense. I hope that educators, counselors and others help me in ensuring they have time for genuine immersion into a world beyond teen culture.

I hope their community presents to them with pride and respect, examples of teens who are living authentically. Teens who are utilizing their emotions, idealism, and energy toward self-discovery and change.

Finally, I hope they’ll be encouraged to be rebels with a cause. They can be countercultural. They can rebel against those elements of youth culture which do not resonate with them, as well as the injustices they see going on in the world around them.

The sky’s the limit. With their lives ahead of them, there’s no reason why they must wait to begin truly living.

After all…

Joan of Arc was 17 when she took a commanding role in the French army.

Alexander Hamilton was 13 when he was entrusted to run a trading charter.

Mary Shelley was writing Frankenstein when she was 19

Louis Braile invented the Braille System when he was 15.

Soccer phenomenon Pelé won a World Cup at 17.

Malala Yousafzai was 11 while fighting for girls’ rights to education

Teens, just like all of us, have hearts ready for deep love, minds searching for discovery, souls thirsting for God, and bodies made to reflect their inherent dignity.

How have your experiences as a teen influenced the way you parent your children? Do you think there’s an alternative to the way teens are frequently portrayed in our culture?

 

My Son, This is What it Means to be Southern

My son,

You asked me today what it means to be ‘southern’.

It’s good that you asked. You are being raised in the South, and you will be shaped by its meaning. Now you are very young and were given a simple answer, but as you grow this meaning will grow with you.

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Being southern means being tied to the land – overgrown and luscious, maddening in density. Our land is fragrant, and always resisting cultivation. The slopping fields, deep woods, and coursing rivers bear the names of British monarchs, founding fathers, and peoples long ago stripped of the land they alone had loved. We utter all these names and thus give them power to shape us.

Being southern means enduring our summers. The heat and humidity make us a little wild. This wildness permeates our language, our posturing, our emotions, our very ideas of life, and meaning. We often straddle a desire to be both gracious and raw in authenticity.

We’ve created literature, music and cuisine celebrated the world over. We’re a land of celebrated authors and musicians, as well as countless women and men who had to leave their work nameless.

We recognize that “y’all” is the single most satisfying phrase to utter.

We crave porch sitting and tea sipping.

We showcase in no quiet or subtle ways the very marrow of human nature. We as a people have loved intensively and hated in tragic proportions. Our language is spoken with meandering poetry, and with arresting derogatoriness. We are renowned for our hospitality and made infamous by our segregation. There always seems to be a war brewing. It will be your generation’s job to finally bring peace.

Southerners claim the most paradoxical of heritages. A heritage that birthed modern ideals of liberty and freedom while simultaneously enslaving many of its members. Some people liberated while still oppressing. Some people lived in chains, but never stopped dreaming of freedom. We have tended things that should have been left behind and neglected many thing that only propelled us toward justice.

We southerners are not a melting pot, but a boiling stew, in which the influences of countless civilizations are colliding and marinating with one another. You must remember those who still yearn to taste true freedom.

My son, you must one day come to terms with the paradox of your heritage. You will be proud, but you will also feel anguish. You may love, but only after knowing that loving something doesn’t make it perfect. You can speak of your experiences, but you must also listen and learn from voices of those who have not shared your experiences.

For you, being southern will mean carrying on traditions that bring beauty to the world and embracing changes that make our culture worthy of the land which nourishes us.

 

 

A Humble Father’s Day for Humble Men

A Humble Father’s Day

If I could give my husband the world this Father’s Day, I would.

As it stands, the only thing he has requested is a homemade enchilada dinner. He’ll say the meal is “delicious” with a big grin, but I’ll know it’s mediocre at best. Trust me!

The father of my children has embraced parenting with tremendous love, dedication and very little fanfare. He sacrifices and never asks for recognition. He willingly takes on the supportive role in our family and gives all he has so that we can find sanctuary in the center of his world. My husband is the one cheering loudest from the sidelines as my children and I run our lifelong races. He hands us water when we are parched and encourages us when we are weary. When we cross our finish lines, he celebrates with abandonment and does not mention how close we came to faltering without him by our side.

Although I obviously believe my husband to be the most extraordinary man in the world, his quiet and humble service to family is the hallmark of many incredible fathers who walk in our midst.

These are the fathers who ceaselessly give without waiting for praise. Come Father’s Day they will accept their tacky ties and oversized mugs and find nothing missing in the celebration.

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Fatherhood’s Quiet Gift of Self

Fatherhood’s quiet gift of self often begins in the first weeks of his child’s existence, as he holds his pregnant wife’s hair back during the throes of morning sickness, and carries her to bed each night after she passes out on the sofa. It occurs in the midst of whispered encouragement to his mate when she doubts, and in his affirmation of her strength when she senses vulnerability. It’s found in his ability to give unwavering reassurance to the one in travail, even when all he wants to do is take away her pain.

But this kind of loving humility is also found when the wait for a child is long or the ending is met with loss.  It’s found when a man affirms to his partner that the wait has no bearing on their union or in his search to find a child not of his blood, but of his heart.

The journey may begin in different ways, but a humble father’s gift of self never ceases from the moment he holds his child in his arms.

It’s found as a father nestles his newborn upon his chest, savoring a meager paternity leave. He soaks up those precious few days with his squishy baby, knowing that the more he gives, the more his heart will ache upon his return to work. It’s there when he passes on career opportunities to gain time with his family or when he decides it’s best he stay at home with his children even though he’ll be met with stares and cutting remarks from others.

A father of this caliber forgoes vacations because he’s welcomed babies into his life. His humility means laboring long hours and coming home with his sleeves rolled up ready to work some more. His sacrifice is found when he has a gym membership card in his pocket, but rushes straight home from work because he cannot wait to see his family. It’s found in wanting the last bite of his dinner, but giving it to the ravenous wildebeests around his table. It means willingly stepping into a minefield of Legos late at night because his toddler needs one more glass of water.

He has forgotten what it’s like to sleep in on the weekends because his kids proclaim he makes the world’s best pancake breakfasts. He realizes that being passed on the highway by a sexy sport car comes with the territory while safely maneuverings a mini-van. He doesn’t even mind being teased for his wheels, realizing that his manhood isn’t in question while driving a carload of his progeny.  

A humble father can be found up extra-early each morning praying for his children and up late at night figuring out ways to make the world a more just place for them.

This quiet giver copes with unrelenting stress and pressures from a hundred different directions. He has precious little space in society to discuss them. Although he is sometimes misunderstood by friends and family who can forget how hard it is to be a good father, he trusts things will turn out well in the end.

This father has the courage to redefine what strength means and models it for his children. He holds them in his arms while owning his responsibility in shaping their sense of security and self-worth.

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He embraces fatherhood in a world that continually inundates men with reasons not to be fathers. A world that tells him to glorify sex, but not procreation, pursue wealth, but not generosity, seek power, but not service, accumulate self-fulfillment, but not opportunities for self-sacrifice.

He hears the million reasons why he shouldn’t give of himself in fatherhood, but realizes his capacity for love makes him worthy of the task.

And so this father does not look for praise, because he finds fulfillment in the children he loves. He gives and serves the whole year through and celebrates his life-giving fatherhood over a plate of enchiladas.

Happy Father’s Day to all the incredible fathers in our midst!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Teaching Kids About Dreams, Jobs and Dignity

 “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Adults love to ask this question of children and relish the answers we’re given.

We love to hear the originality and confidence children possess when saying they’re going to be an astronaut or doctor. Out of love for them, but also pride in the way it reflects upon us, we actively nurture our kids’ highest aspirations.  We want to believe our children can achieve anything. The bigger the goal, the more incredible the feat, the more our hearts yearn for its fulfillment.

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Encouraging our children to dream is one of parenting’s most beautiful endeavors.

But there’s another component to consider when talking with children about their career ambitions, and it warrants just as much cultivation as dream-building. This component may not be as romantic, but it’s intrinsic to many of the disparities facing our society and thus deserves to be equally emphasized.

We simply need to do a better job of teaching kids that all work, done with dignity, has value. All work, not just the coveted positions, is necessary to the world we live in. All people, no matter their occupations, are deserving of respect and appreciation.

The Messages We Give Our Children

When I was in high school, steeped in honors coursework, I was asked by a teacher during class to share what “I wanted to be.”

I told him I wanted to be a school bus driver.

His response was not a favorable one. I was lectured in front of my peers on how each one of us is called to “dream big” and use every ounce of our talent to pursue these  dreams. Otherwise, we were wasting our potential.

I wanted to be a school bus driver because I enjoyed driving. I liked the idea of taking children to and from school safely. I loved country roads and the idea of having a route in a rural county appealed. I was also from a low-income household and somewhat uncomfortable with the culture and assumptions that surround an “honors” education.

The teacher’s perspective seemed especially nonsensical to me later that afternoon as I stepped off the bus and said goodbye to the woman who had once again ensured I’d made it safely home from school.

Alas, I went off to college and never became a school bus driver.

Americans love a strong work ethic, but we also have a blatant hierarchy of “worthy” and “unworthy” jobs which consumes much of our discussion surrounding employment. This has caused a tragic cycle of injustice and heartache over what makes a person a worthy contributor to society.

There’s currently a great deal of frustration surrounding the disparity of work, the ability to make a living and the giving and receiving of respect. I’m not an economist or a sociologist, but the lack of dignity given to huge segments of our workforce seems central to our woes. How can we make changes and ensure our children grow up with genuine appreciation and respect for all those who make our society function?

Lessons in Work and Dignity

Millennials in particular are criticized for not wanting to take jobs considered menial or unglamorous. I have not found this to be the case. But even if were true, the irony that Millennials are faulted for having the very attitude perpetuated by so much of society cannot be lost.

Most of us heard at some point in our education that we’d be condemned to “flipping burgers for a living” if we didn’t apply ourselves – having a job flipping burgers being portrayed as a negative thing.

With the economic difficulties, I think we are at a crossroads. There’s a great deal of learning to be done, but we can use our experiences to be more intentional about fueling dreams and teaching our children the dignity of all work.

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As parents we can be intentional about stepping outside our niches and ensuring we have friendships and meaningful relationships with people from a diversity of occupational backgrounds. Exposing our children to this diversity will open their minds to new possibilities and drive home the point that no job is above or beneath them.

We can ensure that the quality of our interactions with others is not dependent on their job statuses. There are few things as painful to experience as a human treated as less important because of the type of service they are providing to society. Our kids need to see that their parents acknowledge the personhood of all. The person cleaning the doctor’s office is just as worthy of respect as the doctor doing the examination. The person serving our food is just as deserving of a sincere “hello” as the CEO dining at that establishment.

We need to debunk the myth of the “lazy poor.” It’s served as a convenient excuse to justify disparities in our society, but we all know deep down that the families working the hardest are often the ones getting paid the least. There is nothing “lazy” about a person holding down multiple part time jobs to put food on the table, or someone who is rolling up their sleeves and doing the job most are unwilling to perform. If a service is necessary for our society to function, but the person performing that service is not receiving a living wage, how can we teach our children that this is a just or sustainable situation?  

Fundamental to all of this is our openness to our children’s dreams, even if they diverge from our own. Perhaps we imagine our kids as Nobel Prize winning scientists. But they may not want to follow the course we have laid out for them. If we give children unconditional love and support, they will grow up reflecting these same virtues to all those who labor alongside them.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have dreams for my children. But the only one I’m really comfortable sharing with my children at this time is a hope that they will live their lives and do their work in a way that treats fairly of all those whose paths they cross.

Between you and me though, the kid who becomes a school bus driver may end up being my favorite.

How do you emphasize to your kiddos the respect due to all who work in our society?

 

 

A Woman for All Seasons

Join me in welcoming guest writer, Allison Aylward to the blog! A PhD candidate and new mom, Allison explores the birth pangs of early motherhood and her growing confidence to navigate the changes it brings.

I am a new mom, currently juggling the needs of my one year old son, my husband, and my PhD. My husband and I welcomed our son during the second year of my PhD; my Annual Progress Review was actually scheduled the day before my due date. Sweating out a progress review by panel (literally) at nine months pregnant was one of those life experiences I’ll never forget or not mine for laughs.

Prior to getting pregnant, or even as we woke up each morning, wondering if that would be the day I’d go into labour, I had not considered how I’d feel about my career path as a new mom. I had not considered the fact that I’d be pulled towards, and be completely satisfied with, a much more slowed down pace and direction for my professional life. As I approach the final stages of this PhD, my priorities are with my young son and my husband, and making sure my family’s needs are met. My desires for the trappings of an academic career have faded into the background, almost like a dream. Thanks to the wisdom of a kind friend, I now realize I’m simply moving into a different season in my life, and there will be other seasons in the future for new opportunities.

I struggled with accepting this while at the same time relishing the rebelliousness of this realization. Part of this discovery was a natural result of the PhD process. As an aspiring academic, I see academia for what it is – warts and all. Inside the ivory tower, all is not dusty old tomes, tweed jackets, and erudite conversations with leading scholars (though there is a bit of that!). It’s full of people who work incredibly hard, pushed beyond reasonable professional expectations, to deliver for the university and their students. It’s full of people who are expected to maintain a grueling research output schedule, while still handling a full teaching and administrative load that only increases each year. Academics work in uncertain conditions, knowing that their jobs could be ended without much notice.

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Allison finds parallels in the landscapes surrounding her home and her own life journey

As PhD candidates, we see all of this. And, in its own way, it’s useful. We are confronted with this reality and have to ask ourselves – do we want this for ourselves? Knowing what we know about the realities of academia in the 21st century, do we want to joint this relentless cycle of publishing, admin, grant writing, and if we are lucky, the odd bit of truly satisfying teaching and mentoring?

This process of professional planning was only compounded when I found out I was pregnant. We live in a society that tells women we can truly have it all, if we just ‘lean in.’ But, what society also tells us, is that if we don’t succeed in every single way at work, if we don’t embody the ultimate in domestic goddess, and if we don’t kill ourselves for our children’s well-being, then we’ve failed. Well, the truth is that no one can do this alone.

As a Type A person, recovering over-achiever in school, and having grown up in a very competitive area, I struggle with this dilemma. I’ve learned a lot about myself in this post-partum period. I actually can function on zero sleep and I have learned to make peace with clutter and laundry that was done and folded weeks ago, but never put away. A grimy bathroom doesn’t give me nightmares anymore. In a previous job, on one annual review, I was told I was a ‘pillar of patience’ when helping my colleagues learn to use a new filing system. I was amused, thinking if they only knew how short my fuse really was. Now, I own that title. I can handle a willful, angry, baby that is wrecked but doesn’t want to sleep and takes an hour to settle. I can get up again and again in the night, with a smile and a cuddle, because my son needs me. I accept that everything will take longer than it used to, and that’s ok. That’s just where my life is right now.

And it is in this current season of life, learning so much about myself, that I realised I don’t want to remain in the ivory tower. I don’t even know if I want an academic career. My priorities have shifted, my interests diverted. I know I want to continue working after the PhD is finished, but it’s not on the original path I had thought. And that is ok. Maybe later on in my life, but for now I am satisfied where I am. And in accepting this desire, I feel free. Free of the relentless pressure that society places on women, particularly mothers. Free to say that I am in the season of my life where my family takes priority. Perhaps later, in a different season, I will return to a more career focused outlook.

I want my son to see all of this. To see a mother that is confident in her choices in life; who can keep evolving and developing as she grows in years and experience. I hope that this inspires him to realise his own life will be made of seasons, and to weather their passing with confidence, just as is mother is weathering her own.

Many people experience liberation in letting go of the pressure to “have it all”. Have you experienced seasons in your life? How can children learn from these experiences?

Allison bio

Allison is a PhD candidate in the UK, researching the Colombian peace process. Her work focuses on confidence building and negotiations in the context of ongoing violence. She enjoys spending time with family, traveling, swimming, yoga, and writing. Brand new journals, full pots of coffee, and soul music make her happy. All opinions and thoughts expressed on this page are her own and not affiliated with any organisation.

Things A Photo Cannot Capture

I caught a glimpse of my baby girl as she stood by her favorite spot in our home – a wicker bench near a window which overlooks a ridge of trees. The sun was setting below the tree line on what had been a beautiful early spring day. There was something about the way the dusk light cast a gentle glow around my daughter’s profile that made my heart ache. I reached for my phone in hopes of taking a photo of the moment. After snapping a few shots, my eyes left my daughter to review the pictures.

Dang it, I thought, something is missing. So I adjusted the brightness on my camera settings and took a few more. Still not it, I thought and continued on. Finally, with slight disappointment, I realized the moment wasn’t going to be “captured.” The phone was put down.

My eyes once more looked for the ethereal glow of fresh baby skin only to see that she had scampered away from her spot on to the next attraction.

My heart sank. The moment – so fleeting and beautiful – had been once more interrupted by my desire to capture it with a photo.

How many times in my life has this happened? When would I learn?

I love taking photos. I love surrounding my home with images of the memories my heart holds dear. In laughing with friends, it’s frequently remarked that our photos are our best anti-depressants. When I’m feeling down or had a rough day, a scroll through pictures of my kids usually sets me aboard the happy train.

Our world of parenting is inundated with the availability and convenience of taking pictures. And although it may be met with cynicism at times, I know that we are taking and sharing photos out of love for our children.  We’re proud and in awe of these tiny humans who make us see the world anew every day, and it’s a good thing that we are able to document so much of this time.

But when I’m really honest with myself, my main reason for taking pictures is something a bit more melancholic. I take pictures because I cannot stand the heartbreaking reality that I can never have this moment again with my babies. Our children will always be our babies, but they will only ever be as they are now for the briefest of moments before growth and change carries them forward.

How incredible, bittersweet and at times painful is this?

No picture will ever truly “capture” everything that makes up the moments that matter. And let’s face it, amidst the good, the bad and the ugly, every moment matters. There are not enough Shutterfly products, Instagram filters and photography sessions in this world to change the fact that all we have is this present time.

When I look back at those photos I took of my daughter, I now know that even with a few pictures on my phone, I’ll never see the same light cast a glow on my baby’s cheeks. I’ll never hear the same sweet exhales from her button nose, never feel her soft wisps of hair just as she was on the evening.

On that evening I should have let the phone alone and had the courage to take it all in, realizing that this was it – this was all there was and all I would need as her mother.

If I can just have the courage to embrace this reality more often – the tenderness and the heartache – how much more authentic and powerful would this journey in motherhood be?

Perhaps I can show my daughter that pictures have a time and a place, but life is not meant to be captured, but experienced.

Perhaps I can help her realize long before I did that in both the ordinary and extraordinary moments of life, our best bet is to allow our senses, not a device, to take it all in.

Whether it be a morning walk or a walk down the aisle, a trip to Europe or a trip to the grocery store with her baby, she should take it all in with her senses and trust that it will be enough just to live in that moment.

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It’s so tempting to constantly snap pictures of our children. How do you find a balance between living in the moment and ensuring you have keepsakes for the future?

Embracing The Positivity of Boy Power

 After millennia of grossly preferring sons to daughters, our society seems increasingly ready to commit to the narrative of raising bold, confident and independent girls.  We are passionate about equality and the possibility of an entire sex having the opportunities which have so long been denied. Where can the future take us if we encourage and pride ourselves on having daughters? What injustices can we right as we overturn a culture that has left girls and women vulnerable and disenfranchised for so long?

Girl Power vs. Boy Power

The girl revolution is exhilarating. It’s positive. I am as strong an advocate as any individual can be.

But as human nature so often ensures, one collective action often triggers an unintended and unfortunate reaction. As much as it may make us uncomfortable to contemplate, I believe we may be setting our sons up for disappointment.

From TED talks to the New York Times, from parenting articles and conversations with our play groups­­– we’re left with the gray area of our boys. Whereas “girl power” often evokes feelings of empowerment and positivity, “boy power” is often reserved for describing negative and destructive forces.

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