Thursday, June 30, 2011

To Haiti, With Love

Last night, Sophia slept on the floor of her bedroom, and I cried myself to sleep.

It's Vacation Bible School at our home church (Mariners Church, Irvine) this week, and Sophia is attending along with her friend Olivia from school (pictured above), and roughly 2,000 other children from our community. In addition to a Bible theme (this year it's the idea that God made each kid for an amazing purpose, based on Ephesians 2:10), they have a VBS missions project. The goal for the kids this week is to raise $20,000 to build an orphanage in partnership with a local church in Carrefour, Haiti.

The project has been breaking my heart. In the literature Mariners sent home on Monday, it said that even before the devastating earthquake, there were 380,000 orphans in Haiti. Our kids have been learning about the poverty, the clean water shortages, and the tents that most Haitians are now living in. Part of the VBS missions project is for the kids to try small aspects of living like the Haitians to drive the message home. Last night, they were supposed to sleep outside in a tent with no air mattress, or on the floor with only a single sheet for covering (we chose option two, since we don't really own any outdoor space).

I put Sophia to bed on the floor, handpicking the thickest sheet I have from my linen closet so she wouldn't be cold: a beautiful white-on-white brocade from Italy, given to me when I used to write a home accents column for a local magazine. Not exactly roughing it.

But when I came upstairs two hours later and checked on her lying on the floor, she looked so small and vulnerable, and for a flash I imagined what it would be like to see her sleeping on hard ground night after night with only a tarp over her head. I imagined what it would feel like to know that was the best I had to give her. And I crawled into my bed and wept.

As Sophia teaches me what it's like for the children and adults in that poor nation, I see these 2,000 Orange County children, most of them well fed, and all of them clean and dressed, running into our sanctuary each day, and think how fortunate I am to be raising my kids here. I love that my church is giving me and my kids the opportunity to make this profound comparison, and even more that they help us do something to help our less fortunate "neighbors." If each parent at VBS donated just $10, they'd reach their $20,000 goal easily, but instead, they encourage our little ones to raise the money on their own, by having car washes, lemonade stands, collecting cans.

Yesterday we had a cupcake, brownie and lemonade stand in our neighborhood and raised $34. Lots of people stopped and gave over and above what we were charging for melting cupcakes. How could they resist, with Sophia and Olivia carefully explaining that they are trying to help build an orphanage, and 3-year-old Livie chirping through their car window, "We made lemonade for Haiti! It's for the orphans!"

It's so, so little, what we've done this week in response to what we've been learning, and words fail me now as I try to wrap up this entry. There's no pithy, applicable lesson. Just the sobering thought of a staggering gap between the poor and the wealthy in this world, and the realization (yet again) that I'm in the second category. I don't deserve it, and I can't make it right.

Lord, let the lessons of this week stay with us, and may they bearfruit in our family, in our church, and in the lives of these precious, privileged 2,000 Orange County kids. And be with the children in Haiti, their parents, and all the people there trying to do them good.

The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.
Psalm 34:17-19

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Parent-Toddler Wars Part II

I had mixed emotions, when, having posted a blog on battling my three year old just before 8 p.m. last night, I turned on my laptop this morning and found several comments from other mommies who were similarly engaged in skirmishes with their own children. On the one hand, it's lovely to feel that I am not alone. On the other hand, I feel so sorry for these fellow mommies, and wouldn't wish my current struggle on anyone.

Now imagine my emotion, when, still feeling the effects of having to empty Livie's room of most of her toys because she wouldn't help pick any of them up, I woke to her unrepentant, shiny little face peeking over my mattress. Walking into her room I asked, "Do you feel sad that you lost all those toys last night because you made a bad choice?"

"No," she said brightly, "because look! I found my little blue doggy from Auntie Tris." And at this she held up a tiny blue bath toy which had been buried under her other playthings, and gave it a jaunty little "squeak squeak."

Then she proceeded to have another truly hideous day during which she actually foamed at the mouth and spit in the parking lot of a grocery store, miraculously dried her tears long enough to ask for a Barbie knock-off in the toy aisle, and then resumed a snotty tantrum that brought all other shoppers eyes on me. "Feel bad for me," I said to the staring strangers. "This child has nothing to cry about." I really did say that, I swear.

One of the hardest things about parent-toddler wars is that it takes so long to see who is really winning. I'm grateful for the experience of having already made it through this with my first daughter, and seeing that she is a reasonably kind, rational and well-behaved human at this point (age seven and a half). When she was three, I actually believed she might be a sociopath, because all my best discipline techniques and all my worst mommy moments (yelling, forceful door closing, etc) seemed to be equally ineffective. It sounds funny now, but truly, that was on the list of fears I brought to my moms group one tearful morning.

Part of why I believed I was so worried with my first daughter, was that I had bought into an idea sold to me by a speaker at my MOPS group that if I just set boundaries "correctly and consistently," my child would start behaving significantly better within a week. Forgive my strong opinion here, but now I declare to you that anyone who says that to the mother of a toddler is just trying to boost her book sales. If I ever write a book on parenting (hey, that's an idea!), I will tell mothers that they may not see the positive effects of their parenting for two to 20 years! Taking away a child's toys because they refuse to help put them away isn't going to make them put all their toys away the next day. But do it often enough, and some day, when they are developmentally ready, they will internalize the lesson that their actions have a cost, and change their behavior.

Here's the hope I'm clinging to today: My Livie's heart is what I'm trying to shape, not just her actions. On any given day, her behavior is affected by her brain development, how much sleep she's had, how much sugar she's eaten, what changes are going on in our household, and a dozen other things I can't predict, control or even name.

But overall, I believe Jeff and I are launching her into a broad arch of goodness, training her up in the way she should go, by loving her unconditionally, offering her forgiveness, and teaching her the difference between right and wrong. She won't be a perfect person, but I believe she will internalize the goodness we are offering her, by the grace of God. And I also believe that she will one day be able to look disappointment in the face without foaming at the mouth in the parking lot (dear Lord, I hope so).

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Parent--Toddler Wars

This evening, just before the kids' bedtime, Mommy acquired a whole bunch of toys.

In my master bedroom, which Oprah, Real Simple Magazine and lots of sleep experts say should be a peaceful place of refuge if I actually want to sleep in it, I now have the following toys stacked next to my nightstand:

a wooden cradle, a dog bed, stuffed animals (dog, cat, horse, bear, anteater, pink poodle), a Barbie RV, a Barbie fold-out dollhouse, a Barbie, a Ken, two Barbie horses (one brown, one pink with white feather mane and tale), a box of wooden blocks, wooden lacing cards, a crate of plastic food, a My Little Pony stable, and a plastic shoe box full of random figurines and McDonald's Happy Meal toys.

Why am I so fortunate as to have acquired all this loot? Well, the short answer is, I am the mother of a naughty three year old. The long answer is, well, long.

We've had quite a day over here, with lots of foot stamping, demands being made, copious fake weeping, etc. I've said things like, "Make a good choice, Livie," lots of times, and in one instance her response was, "No, I'm not making any choices!" At that point the rest of the family retreated to the backyard, with the sliding door closed.

But just before bed, I entered Livie's room (read: utter pig sty), and asked her to please pick up her wooden blocks (just five). These blocks were only about 1/16 of the detritus on her floor.

"Mom, you have to help me! I can't do all this work by myself." Uh, Liv, it's five blocks.

Fed up, I gave her a choice. "You can either pick up those blocks and put them in the box, Liv, or Mommy is going to take all these toys you see away from you."

And in a developmentally appropriate act of testing boundaries, she replied, calmly, "I'm not picking up the blocks."

So. I got to pick up not only the five blocks, but all the other toys as well, and now the pig sty is in my room. Who is the victor in this particular battle?

I can at least say with confidence that I did better today than I did a few weeks ago, when Liv had been in rare form for days (15 or so), and I got so frustrated with her constant testiness, that I heaved toys out of her room like sandbags until they formed a three-foot-high pile in the hallway, grunting, "That toy is mine...unh!...and that one is mine!..." the entire time. Not my most self-controlled disciplinary action, but the results were grand. She had to earn those toys back with good behavior and for at least two weeks we've enjoyed better attitudes, more cooperation and consistent nap times.

But apparently the lesson has faded and its time to try it again. Meanwhile, Livie gets to play with her remaining toys in a now neat room, and I get to live in a pig sty. So picture me, friends, as I step over a pile of toys as I try to reach my dresser or crawl into bed, and decide for yourself, who do you think is winning?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Busy Becoming a Woman

I woke up this morning at 5 a.m. with a homicide hangover.

The custom ranch house and huge grassy yard where my mom and her five siblings grew up, was also the site of enumerable family gatherings for the 12 cousins in my generation. There last night, at my grandfather's 96th birthday party, my daughter Sophia (fourth generation) was inducted into a family tradition that my brothers and their male cousins started: whacking June bugs with badminton rackets.

First step in the process is drawing the prey by turning on a lamp mounted to the exterior eves of the kitchen. Step two: Wait in the shadows with a racket. Step three: swat the June bugs to kingdom come. Sophs was pretty excited to participate, because she thinks her uncles are awesome. I decided to join them, feeling happy and reckless the way a nerdy kid (which I was) who is let into the group of cool kids (which my brothers are) usually does, even when she's acting against her conscience.

I jumped into the air and swung at a bug, hitting it on the first try with a satisfying "THWANG!" Standing under the light, armed with my badminton racket, I realized that I had very clear memories of my brothers doing this testosterone-laced ritual, but had never participated. Instead, I had seen it from the kitchen sink, where I was likely doing dishes with my aunts. "I should have had more fun with you when we were kids, J," I said to my brother. "Why wasn't I out here with you back then?"

"You were busy becoming a woman," he said, with the kind of wit, sensitivity and piercing clarity that is so characteristic of my younger brother.

Truer words were never spoken. I was indeed busy by the age of eight: cooking, table setting, dish washing, drink pouring -- which is what women did (or I should say do) in my family. But not only that, I was also busy struggling between which impulse I wanted to follow: go tell my brothers to come in out of the garage and help, or go join them.

I'm 33 years old, and though in other circles I can be a sort of a goofy rebel without a cause or the class clown that derails serious proceedings, in my family of origin I'm still struggling against these two contrary impulses. Grow up and make everyone else grow up, or be a carefree kid. I think it's the struggle of the first born child, though it may not be quite so universal.

I was separated from my brothers by this first impulse. At best it was a desire to keep order, honor my parents (sometimes maybe even protect them), and see that righteousness was served in our family. I always had my antenae up, trying to read people's emotional needs, and then try to meet them. At worst, it was a need to control and a belief that I knew what everyone else should be doing and had a right to make them do it.

Now, feeling that my role as order keeper is no longer needed, I find I don't fit in so well at the kids' table. As hard as it is for me to step out of the "first born" big sister thing, it may be equally hard for my brothers to see that I want to. Perhaps we all perceive that I don't wear carefree abandon well, especially when it costs something to others, even if it only means sitting outside with my siblings while my mom and the aunts make dinner, set the table, do the dishes. And frankly, I feel kind of sick now about smacking all those poor bugs.

I see these dynamics taking place in my own family now, with my daughters. Sophia sometimes bosses Livie just for the heck of it, but other times a more adult impulse kicks in, and I see her sacrafice her own desires for what she perceives is the good of our family. She gives in to Livie's tantrums if she thinks I'm having a bad day, for example, so that I won't have to hear Liv scream anymore. Her little antenae are up, and she wants to please us, to do what is right.

I observe her with a mixture of pride and sorrow. Even at seven, she's busy becoming a woman, trying to figure out how to be both righteous and kind, both fun-loving and responsible, working out where her responsibilities start and stop. I believe my sacred duty in raising her is to help her find the balance in these things, to exercise her leadership in our family -- and later in the world where she will undoubtedly find places to lead -- with grace and humility. I want her to grow up, but not too fast. And I hope that even when she is a woman, she'll still find herself comfortable sitting at the kids' table now and then.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Loss of Lipstick, Loss of Limb

A couple of weekends back, my friend Tris and I had a fabulous girls' morning out: a luxury pedicure and lunch at one of our favorite restaurants. The outing was a generous gift from the women on our MOPS leadership, and we had a pretty much perfect day. "Baby Love" nail polish on our fingers, vanilla and coffee beans scrubbed into our toes, and then just a little too much lunch followed by chocolate cake.

But then that afternoon, I chipped the "Raspberry" nail polish on my right big toe, a tragic flaw on the first professional pedicure I've had in a year. Then, on the way to my parents' house for dinner, I realized that my pink bag full of MAC lipstick that is always in my purse was not in my purse. Can I say, with shame, that at that moment I felt very strongly that we live in a fallen world in which tragedies are apt to befall us at any moment and nothing on this sad planet is ever perfect. Watching the news makes me know this. Losing my lipstick made me feel it. How embarrassing is that?

I spent 30 minutes on the phone with employees of both the nail salon and the restaurant describing my makeup bag, but to no avail. I calculated the monetary loss of my lipstick collection -- about $80 -- and realized there was no way it was getting replaced in full anytime soon. Driving home that night, I planned this blog, titled "Loss of Lipstick."

But then, I walked in the backdoor, and what should be laying like a chameleon on a dark plank of laminate flooring in my kitchen, but my lipstick bag! Immediate guilt for making the minimum wage workers search for it. And then -- joy! I was suddenly aware of what a blessed woman I am, how rich and fortunate: the owner of $80 worth of high quality lip pigment, a shade for every mood and season!

Weeks have gone by and I feel a sense of profound gratitude every time I put lipstick on, a true happiness at having what once was thought lost and now has been found. I'm trying to make this lesson in gratitude sink in deeper, hopefully transforming me into a person who can be grateful for her possessions, but who clings to them loosely, so she won't be crestfallen when they get lost.

A few days after the lipstick incident, my seven year old Sophia was walking around the back yard, observing the movement of her own limbs. "Mom," she said, "isn't it great that we can just walk without thinking about it? Wouldn't it be hard if we had to tell each body part to move, one at a time?" You should have seen the wonder on her face.

Our pastor gives a sermon each year on gratitude, and he always goes through a list of all the things we take for granted. On the list, the fact that we get out of bed in the morning, and our miraculous body moves without us even having to think about each motion. Sophia got that on her own, and, as children do, reminded me of this profound and simple spiritual truth. We take most good things we have for granted, and often don't realize how great they are until they are lost or threatened. I don't even think about having two good arms until I see someone who's lost a limb. I complain about how my legs look, until I see someone in a wheelchair and remember to be grateful that they get me where I need to go.

In his sermon, my pastor has a saying he always repeats: Grateful people want what they have and don't want any more. I want my lipstick. I want these limbs. And I'm grateful for this little, simple lesson.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Farm Girl I Am Not

My bold goal since I first started this blog: 100 entries in one year. I've never made the goal public, but here it is, online. Since I started this blog on June 28, 2010, I now have seven days to write eight blogs. I have the ideas, but can I find the time? Let's find out...

There are a few occupations that I would be extremely ill-suited for, according to my husband. One: A spy. This came up once when we were watching The Bourne Identity and I got pretty excited about the prospect of driving a Mini Cooper through the streets of Paris. But as Hubby pointed out, I am not skilled in combat, I don't remember names or faces well, and I don't speak any foreign languages. I can't sneak up on people (I always trip in dark rooms) and in fact have a heightened startle response (I shriek when people sneak up on me, or even say "hi" when my back it turned).

Two: Accountant. Um, I don't know how to balance the checkbook.

Three: Taxi driver. My fender benders have been many. And I have no (NO!) sense of direction, which is another count against me on the spy front. Drop me off in a foreign city, or even a residential neighborhood in, say, Tustin, California, and then just give me up for dead. My husband also swears that he will never allow me to rent a Vespa and drive around Italy, though it is one of my dearest wishes, because I would wreak havoc that would put Audrey Hepburn's scooter stint in Roman Holiday to shame.

These are sad facts for me, all but the accountant one. I really feel sometimes that I would be good at all kinds of things, but then I try them, and it turns out, that, no, not so much. I tell a dear friend of mine, often, that I have more chutzpah (guts) than skill. I'm up for all kinds of adventures, but I'm actually not a superhero, not cool, not smooth, not acrobatic. I'm actually a klutz. Last week I climbed my daughter's favorite tree and then got stuck in it.

One of my imagined identities is Farm Girl. I believe I could really be happy in a farmhouse in the rolling hills of California's Central Coast, keeping goats and chickens, riding my horse to local wineries to sell eggs and goat cheese -- in between stints at the sewing machine, of course. But on recent trips to the Central Coast I've discovered that a country girl I am not.

Bad enough that years ago I got chased by my long-romanticized chickens and was pecked mercilessly in the shins until Jeff rescued me. Two months ago, at a winery, I got my new cardigan sweater stuck in barbed wire, not once, but three times. Then I punctured my hand open on the same wire fence while trying to pet Rocket, the winery horse. I tried to play it cool, as the winemaker and my in-laws were watching, but it's extremely hard to play it cool when you are harpooned on a fence like a mackerel.

Later that day, I was bit in the arm by a five-day-old colt. He drew blood, through my jean jacket.

And then this past weekend, while exploring the wine country of Santa Ynez with Jeff, I began to fantasize about driving a tractor. "Wouldn't that be fun, just once?" I asked my husband. "Do you think anyone would ever let me drive their tractor?" The look Hubby gave me made it clear that if anyone was considering letting me on their farm machinery, he would have words with them first.

But then, just the next day, as we drove to a wine tasting room off the 246, there at the entrance was
an antique red tractor on display. On the way out, emboldened by sips of $50 Chardonnay, I decided to climb up on it. And Hubby, who is a rule follower himself but secretly loves the rebel in me, agreed to take a picture.

You know something, it's much, much harder to get up on an antique tractor than you would think. I'm glad there are no photos of that process. I also discovered that there's a reason no one drives a tractor in short white shorts, except in country music videos. I sliced my poor thigh in two places on the metal tractor seat on the way up. But I got my hands on the steering wheel, and I got my picture! Then I walked around the rest of the day with a giant Tinkerbell Band-aide on my leg.

Still, I have not learned my lesson. I want to pet horses and own chickens, though I am a little more wary of barbed wire. If I ever get a chance to drive a working tractor, I'll take it. I'm attached to my chutzpah (oh, won't it embarrass my daughters in their teenage years?), and in fact believe that it's true source is a willingness to hurt and humiliate myself. And who knows, maybe Jeff will change his mind about letting me rent that Vespa someday.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


For our family, the dawn of summer is Thursday. Tomorrow is my daughter's last day as a first grader (gulp -- making me old!), and the children in our neighborhood are hovering a few inches off the sidewalks, a-quiver with excitement and end-of-year-party sugar. In their minds, summer is a big, sticky jumble of water slides, Popsicles, movie theaters, and time in their pajamas.

Meanwhile, the moms are quivering with different emotions. You can see the fear in their eyes, and not just because it's bathing suit season and they aren't tan yet. We see a different sticky jumble: bad post-pool hair, sandy kitchen floors, a trunk full of wet toys, bodies stuffed into damp one-piece bathing suits (my bikini days are over, dear ones), and mornings spent trying to tame dust bunnies and laundry while two small children wail, "I'm bored!"

Sophia keeps telling Livie, "I'm going to be home with you every day for 10 whole weeks!" Livie responds with a blend of confusion, anticipation and indifference, not knowing what 10 weeks means and being slightly threatened by the fact that she will apparently have to share Mommy.

Ten weeks. Am I excited by the prospect of not having to be seen in public with my children and a packed lunch by 8 a.m.? Yes indeed! Do I feel equally delighted that I shall now have more children to entertain all day long for an entire season while still keeping up with housekeeping and pesky chores like feeding my family? Um, can I plead the Fifth?

Faced with this yawning gap of free days, I feel the need to make lists. Here's my proposed summer plan for the Anderson girls, party of three:

Mondays: Errands and house cleaning . This will be Sophia's first summer getting an allowance, so she gets some official chores to do.

Tuesdays and Wednesdays: Pool, beach and adventure days. Last year, once a week we did something we termed adventurous, including a day at L.A. museums, a ride in the Great Park hot air balloon (free!) and a drive to Great Grandma's with a visit to downtown Temecula thrown in. We also learned that lazy days at home meant more sibling brawls. Most days, we need to be out of the house (read: site of caged death match) by 10 a.m.

Thursday: Bible study in the morning and sometimes beach with Grandma (who is planning Wednesday night sleepovers for the girls) in the afternoon

Friday: Donuts and Starbucks in our pajamas. Mommy included. The rest of the day, we'll wing it.

Somewhere in there we have VBS, swimming lessons, City of Irvine science day camp, a trip to visit a friend in the Bay Area, Saturday concerts in the park, and a family camping trip.

As a wise friend once said to me about parenting, "The days are long but the years are short." If Sophia goes off to college at the age of 18, that means I only have eleven summers left with her. Probably more like six, since at 13, I'm guessing hanging by the pool with mom is going to be, like, so not happening. And here's a happy thought: I like water slides, Popsicles, movie theaters, and time in my pajamas. So watch me embrace the chaos, friends. Summertime, here we come.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

This Pepper Has Legs

When we last left our heroine (me), she was pondering how big love is needed to cover over the multitude of her child's sins (tantrums, capricious demands). Patient, hopeful, persevering love is what one needs to parent a three-year-old. And as it's been almost three weeks since my last blog, you can see that maintaining that love has required my full attention.

Over the last few months, I have been praying a bold prayer on a semi-regular basis: Lord, please humble me. The reasons I felt the need to pray this are not necessary to recount (and wouldn't sound humble). But I will share that God is very faithful to grant this particular request. I actually think God might now be chuckling at my expense, or giving me affectionate ribbing the way my best friend or husband might.

I have as many insecurities as the next woman, but I'm pretty confident in myself as a cook. I can follow advanced recipes and make things up on my own, and my meals usually turn out pretty well. On the other hand, it's not easy for me to order takeout or heat frozen entrees: I have guilt if I don't prepare meals from scratch. But part of my Imperfectionist philosophy at this stage as a mother of young children includes working towards freedom in this area.

Twice this week, Imperfectionism has backfired for me.

The first instance: I had plans on Tuesday to meet some dear girlfriends for dinner. I bought Costco's uber-fattening fettucine Alfredo for my husband and kids to eat in my absence and was feeling pretty good about it. Until 4:45 when my sister in law called to check if she was still welcome for dinner at my house that night. Plans with both sister and girlfriends had changed over the last couple weeks and I had lost track! So April, who is a NYC Culinary Institute graduate and pastry chef at a prestigious gourmet restaurant got to come to my house and eat reheated warehouse pasta and cold left-over salmon out of a Ziploc bag.

Second humbling moment in the kitchen (which actually could be called humiliating): Tonight I went to the fridge intent on making a pot of Italian meatball soup. But when the ground beef appeared less than fresh, I immediately went to a brilliant plan B: tortellini soup with ham and Swiss chard, all made from remnants in my fridge, mostly organic. Feeling extremely efficient and housewifely, I dished up the soup complete with fresh shredded Parmesan. I was on the phone with a girlfriend as I ladeled, and she was feeling inferior to me, as she served her kids frozen pizza and mango for dinner. That is until she heard my seven year old screech, "There's a bug in my soup!"

"Oh, there is not," I said. Quick look in the soup. "Oh, okay, there's one little bug. It must have just fallen in there." Finish the conversation with my friend and come to the supper table, the heart and soul of our happy home. Seven year old is crying. "I can't eat this. There are too many bugs!"

I look in my bowl. "Those black dots are just pepper, honey." My husband clears his throat.

"Amanda," he says, "The pepper has legs." Closer look in the soup. Tiny dead black bugs with wings are stuck to my tortellini. Turns out, the organic farmer's market Swiss chard from the bottom of my veggie crisper hadn't been washed.For some reason, though, my husband is still manfully spooning soup into his mouth. My three year old, who won't eat anything if it has flecks of green in it (something really sick like oregano or thyme) is happily fishing the nats out of her soup and then eating the ham and noodles. She had consumed almost the entire bowl by the time I sat down.

While my deeply tolerant husband drove off to Carls Jr., I sat on the front porch and called my girlfriend back. She felt lots, lots better about herself and the dinner she had just served her children by the time we hung up.

As for me, I think I'm ready to start praying a new pray. Humility? Check.