Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Inside my Suitcase: the Best Version of Myself

When I go on vacation, I like to bring the best version of myself along.

I pack my favorite shirts, my most flattering pair of jeans, and only the comfortable, pretty underwear that still has all it's elastic.

I pack only my two favorite colors of eyeshadow.

I pack only shoes that don't give me blisters.

In my purse, I make sure there is no trash, empty lipstick tubes, or rotten food.

I bring only reading material that is uplifting, and preferably also only in paperback so it is lightweight and inexpensive to replace.

I stock up on healthy, protein-rich and vitamin-rich snacks, and then in a separate container my favorite sweets and a few Diet Cokes for emergencies.

The kids get to bring only practical toys without tiny parts, and educational or creative materials in washable colors. 

I pack the children only clothes that match.

I vacuum the inside of my car.

And as I drive away, I leave a clean house with no vase-fulls of dead flowers and no old food in the fridge.

 As I was neatly folding sundresses into my suitcase yesterday, in preparation for an upcoming trip to Utah, it occurred to me that maybe I should live my whole life a little more like my vacation. For example I could:

get rid of my unflattering jeans and underwear without elastic, dump my old eyeshadow and empty tubes of lipstick, donate the shoes that don't fit me well, never leave rotten food in my purse, stop reading depressing novels, stock my kitchen with healthy food and hide the sweets for emergencies, donate the kids annoying and scarely used impractical toys, throw out the flowers in the vases and celery in the crisper before they turn to sludge, and vacuum my car once a week. I have no idea what to do about my kids clothes not matching.

Whenever I look at my neatly packed trunk of my car, I reflect on the fact that my family takes on vacation more stuff than most people in the world ever own. So a part of me wishes one of you would break into my house while I'm gone and take all this extra stuff out of my closet and clean out all my other purses. But don't. My neighbors are watching the house for me and some of them are in law-enforcement.

It's funny, though, because a part of me believes that I will be nicer, more at peace, and more fun if I'm wearing my cutest, softest clothes and have everything organized. Which is rubbish. This is just part of the fantasy of vacation. In reality, I would never be able to achieve those things everyday in real life (in fact, it will be a stretch to keep that going by Day Two of our road trip); it takes me five days to prepare for seven days with that kind of organization. And secondly, I know for a fact that I have been ill-tempered with my husband even while wearing my cutest outfit (perhaps because he didn't notice), and my children can still be challenging even when they are eating healthy food. 

There is no way to orchestrate life so that everything is problem-free and pretty. But it's nice to try. Which is why I need a vacation! And also a reality check. Praying for both for my family of four this summer.

Friday, June 22, 2012

What Kind of Mom I Am

For the last several months, I have been locked in a mental struggle with myself over whether or not to send my youngest child with an early September birthday to kindergarten in the fall. You moms out there know that I had to start thinking about it months ago, because in order to sign your child up for school in the fall, you must pay money and fill out paperwork in the previous winter!

I knew (as moms do) that my Livie could do kindergarten at age five. What I didn't know is if she could handle being one of the youngest kids in class for the rest of her educational career. I didn't know if she could handle peer pressure as the youngest, handle being one of the last to become an adolescent, get her driver's lisence and on and on. If I waited, how would it be for her to be the tallest (she's a giraffe), oldest, earliest.

I felt either way I went, I was making a fear-based decision. Never a good idea.

So in my mind, I made my official position "undecided," enrolled her in both private pre-K (pricey) and public K (free) and asked God to reveal what we should do in his time.

This week, I believe he answered it. Jeff and I both came to certainty at the same time. We realized that Livie's future character and ability was unknowable: we couldn't predict what kind of a ten year old or sixteen year old she would be. But suddenly, and with clarity, I decided to ask the question, "What kind of mom am I?" Immediately I knew the answer to that, and also to the question "what kind of dad is my husband." We know who we are and what we believe as a family.

We believe that experiencing challenges builds character. Therefore, not necessarily being the brightest kid in the class for whom everything can be a good thing. With our eldest daughter, we've seen that, in fact, being an "accelerated learner" at the top of your class comes with challenges of its own; because most things are so easy for her, when she encounters resistance, it challenges her very sense of identity. I personally struggled with that kind of perfectionism all through school. Perhaps Livie will be freer from that.

We believe that our child's education is our responsibility. If she needs help in school, we'll get her help. I'm a stay-at-home mom. I have time to help with homework and give her the attention she needs.

We believe in believing the best in our girls:  in giving them the opportunity to rise to challenges. We have always done things with them before other kids are "ready": from taking them tent camping to riding roller coasters to eating out in fancy restaurants. And they have learned to not just cope but thrive in many things as a result.

We believe that their security rests not in their ability to be the smartest, tallest, prettiest, most talented people in their class, but rather in their identity as loved children of God, who helped, guided and sustained by Him. And we also believe that because our family, with two committed parents that love each other and love them, our children will be more equipped to  cope in the world than those that don't have that advantage.

This feels to me like a faith-based versus fear-based decision. And I'm not saying its the right one for anyone else but our family. But it feels good.

So...with some trembling, I am un-enrolling in pre-K and praying for my little Livie. Meanwhile, Livie is dancing around the house periodically and chanting "Kin-der-gar-ten" and pumping her little tanned fist in the air. I can't wait to see what God is going to do with her.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Man of our House

If I had to pinpoint the number one thing that bugs me about my husband it's that he is a man. He has Man thoughts . He listens like a Man. He solves problems and approaches emotions like a Man. On the weekends, he has Man priorities that often involve sandpaper or power tools. When I'm trying to get to my moisturizer in the bathroom or the toaster in the kitchen, his big Man body is often in my way. 

On the other hand, if I were to say my favorite thing about my husband, it is also that he is a Man. In our family of four, he is the only one we have. I sometimes wonder how he copes with that. As he comes to the back door at 5:30 p.m., briefcase in hand, and surveys the swirling emotion and twirling princess skirts going on in the kitchen, it's amazing that he doesn't walk right back out to his car and flip on ESPN radio. 

If there is something more attractive to a woman than seeing the father of her children lie on the floor and play Barbies I don't know it is. I love seeing my 6'2" husband curled up on pink twin bed, his body being used as a diving board for stuffed animals or Littlest Pet Shop kitty cats. He reads girlie stories in his Man voice, and raises it an octave to sing silly songs. In our daughter's school Father's Day project, in a sentence that said "Whenever I need advice about.... I just ask my dad," she filled the blank with: "how my outfit looks." A Man without sons, my husband walks into the world of Girls with grace, tenderness, (dare I say it?) style.

And then also, he brings Man activities into their lives, giving them balance. He favors phrases like "Rub some dirt on it" and "suck it up." Our eldest daughter received a real tool set from her father when she was four: complete with level, socket wrench and sand paper. He is her personal soccer coach, her bicycle instructor, her fiercest opponent in wrestling matches. Likewise our youngest, not the most adventurous toddler, benefited from our Man's motivation to get her in the pool, on her two wheeler, and up playground ladders. She now finds that Daddy is her best jungle gym and and excellent Vader to her Skywalker in light saber battles.

I have said before, perhaps in this blog, that Jeff can be the rock we all break against. I happen not only to be a Woman, but a pretty emotional woman. Together, we are raising emotional daughters with all the upheaval that entails. I sometimes get a picture in my head of Jeff, standing firm and refusing to be affected as all of us churn and crash up against him. Sometimes that firmness bordering-on-stoicism irritates me, but in reality firm is what we often need. Our man is the rock we lean on. 

Being the father is a very tough job. Our Man gets us at our worst: early in the morning and during the witching hour at night. Sometime I want him to swoop in and fix things already, when I am tired and overstimulated by a day at home alone with the kids. And then I turn around him and tell him to just listen, don't fix.  (At this point, he's wishing I came with a manual like his scroll saw did.) He has a limited time to make an enormous impact, less time to study and know the kids than I do, and yet his influence is absolutely as critical. I'm proud to say that my husband is making the most of his role, not doing it perfectly, but very, very well. 

As I write this, the Man of our house is in our four-by-four foot powder room with a three gallon air compressor, getting ready to install some crown molding (I couldn't make this up if I tried). In the back yard, he has set up his Craftsman miter saw. This is his idea of kicking back on Father's Day weekend. Man thinking! I'm not enjoying the noise (in fact, I am jumping out of my skin every 95 seconds), but I will enjoy the molding when it's finished. Just one more reason I'm happy that this man is the Man in our house.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

What Kind of Girl I Am

"I thought you were the kind of girl who knew when to say, 'no.'"
"I don't really know what kind of girl I am."
-- From the movie Juno

Proactive people show you what they love, what they want, what they purpose, and what they stand for. These people are very different from those who are known by what they hate, what they don't like, what they stand against, and what they will not do. 
From Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend

I am the kind of girl who likes going to the gym. 

This is as much a shock to me as it is to you. 

In the end of January this year, I signed up for my first ever gym membership. I haven't mentioned it until know because I wasn't ready to go on record. I wanted no accountability. I didn't even want you to be looking for me there (I looked really goofy). But now six months in, it looks as if gym attendance is actually going to stick.

I have long been known -- at least to myself -- as someone who hates to exercise. (For proof read my blog from August 2010 "I Don't Want to Be a Blessing Hog.") There was a brief period in the early 2000s when I enjoyed yoga. But since 2004 I've done it twice. And one time I almost fainted. 

I have never liked to sweat. I don't like pain. I'm clumsy. And I don't like to think about my thighs. And so, over the last 8 years I exercised less and less until I didn't even feel guilty about it anymore. 

Other people would tell me how much they loved working out for it's own sake, and that it made them feel great regardless of whether or not it changed the way they looked. They went on Saturday afternoons! Saturdays! When they could have been reading a book on a lounge chair or napping! They said it was actually addicting. But like someone who thinks they can try heroin but won't get addicted, I didn't believe them. 

In December, Jeff and I spent 24 hours in Las Vegas with a very fit couple who were decades older than us.They went out dancing until 4 a.m. while we went back to our hotel at midnight and fell asleep. As they laughed at us the next day at breakfast, I caught a vision of what life might be like as I get older with exercise... or without. I thought about it for one month, and then I handed my credit card to the guy in the black polo shirt at L.A. Fitness.

And now I'm hooked. I even go on Saturday afternoons. And darn it, but those exercise people were right. I feel better. I don't need a nap as often. And my husband has caught me looking at my bicep in the mirror several times (you wouldn't be impressed if you saw it, but it's very exciting to me). I've figured out some of those intimidating looking weight machines and I've fallen in love with Zumba! Clumsy, size-10-footed Amanda is sweating and leaping and doing salsa and yelling out "ay-yi-yay" along with women who are much hipper and buffer than me, and other women who are much older than me. (One day I told my husband that someone behind me said I was a good dancer. "How old was she?" he asked. "Uh, about 60." "Yeah," my husband said.)

In the last 10 years I have come to agree with (though I had not put words to) the concept from Boundaries, above. I generally define myself by the things I like and stand for: writing, cooking, quilting, singing, serving Jesus, teaching, mothering, flea-marketing, pier jumping. But I defined myself in one negative way: I stood (or rather sat) against exercise. 

So the fact that I now like working out makes me wonder what kind of girl I actually am. I feel I might suddenly get a tattoo, or start speaking in tongues, or decide to home school, or like eel-skin rolls at the sushi bar, or watch "The Bachelor." All previously nearly unthinkable ideas.

I'm turning 35 next month, and I tend to do something momentous at round number birthdays and major milestones. Like, when my first child started kindergarten, I cut eight inches of my hair. And when I turned 30, I had a nervous breakdown. Both of those worked out great in the end. (My hair is still growing out; the nervous breakdown resulted in this blog and lots of personal growth.)

So what shall I  add to my like list this summer? For what shall I now be known? Hubby says the tattoo is a no-no. I'm considering training for a mud run. Hubby thinks that is hilarious. I'll think about it, and let you know.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Woman My Pastor Thinks I Am

For the last five years, I've been a volunteer leader in the MOPS program at our church. MOPS stands for Mothers of Preschoolers, and it's basically a trifecta cross between a parenting class, a Bible study and a support group for moms of children age infant to kindergarten. For the last two years, I was the coordinator of our group, which had 130-something members, and last month committed to oversee the total MOPS program at our church, which involves something like 40 leaders and over 200  attendees. 

Whenever the pastor to Women's ministries at our church, Shelly, introduces me to someone, affirms me at a meeting, or writes me a "thank you" card (which is often -- she is very supportive), she always says that she loves how much I love being a mom, and how much I love ministering to moms. 

I am always surprised that this is what she highlights about me. You know those bumper stickers that say, "I wish I was the person my dog thinks I am"? Well, I need one that says "I wish I was the person my pastor thinks I am." Because in reality, I have very ambivalent feelings about being a mom.

And I don't think of myself as ministering to moms. I think of myself as a minister to women. Who happen to be moms. And I think this is what makes me good at it.

Let me unpack this a little. 

I LOVE being married. I LOVE my kids. But being a mom is very complicated. "Mom" is a label you get when you give birth, and it never leaves you. And for many women, at least for a time, it erases every other label they previously carried. I think of a spoof "Saturday Night Live" commercial for "Mom Jeans" I saw several years ago. The voice-over extols their comfort-fit 9-inch zipper and the fact that wearing them says to world, "I'm not a woman, I'm a mom!"

I have a personal business card that I hand out to people (moms in the park, women in my Bible study, my sewing clients, my editors), and on it is my name, and after it this: 

"Writer, Quilter, Baker, Scrapbooker, Mom"

One time I gave it to a couple of women who bought some antiques in my flea market booth, and they asked me, in all seriousness, "Why do you have Mom on there last? Shouldn't it be first?" The irony: I write about my kids, I quilt for my kids, I bake for my kids, I scrapbook pictures of my kids. But still: shouldn't the word Mom come first?

And that right there is the issue. Moms struggle so much with priorities.Who comes first: husband? Children? Work? Hobbies? My self? When am I being selfish? When am I being too selfless? Am I giving my children enough attention? Too much? Am I involved enough in their pursuits? Am I living too much through their pursuits? It's a constant balancing act. It could turn into a constant identity crisis. It's a crisis of culture. Everyone is in on the debate: what should life look like for a woman with children? A mom can be judged for "letting herself go" or for spending too much time and energy maintaining her appearance. Nothing we do is off limits for judgement.

Which is why an organization like MOPS is so important. Because though their slogan is "Better Moms Make a Better World" (it used to be "Mothering Matters," which is also true), MOPS embraces the conflicted heart of a woman who loves, loves, loves her kids. Enough to die for them. Enough to kill for them. But who also sometimes wants to strangle them. The heart that sometimes hates being a mom: the constant monotony and uncertainty of it. The immeasurability of it; how can I track progress? The sometimes thanklessness of it. The fact that it is stress and boredom punctuated by moments of extreme joy.  

I need much more than motherhood in my life. I'm ambitious. I'm trying to write a book, and get more published in magazines. I want a speaking career. I have 100 quilts in my head that I want to make. My friends are very important to me. I like taking trips by myself. I like being alone in my car!

The fact that I can say this on stage in front of 100 women or more is probably my greatest strength as a leader, though I do it with fear and trembling, knowing that someone out there might judge me for not always putting my kids first. So it's incredibly encouraging that Pastor Shelly hears me speak, and watches me work, and sees that I love motherhood and the ministry for mothers. 

This week, I was having a five minute conversation with Pastor Shelly on the phone, trying to iron out the agenda for an upcoming leadership meeting. Livie was in the back seat of my car, and I was standing outside at the tailgate in the parking lot of a grocery store. Livie was blowing on a whistle she's gotten from a pinata. She'd been using it to give me whistle commands, signals for things like "get out of the car," "get into the car" and "March!" Which is why she was sitting in the car, and I was on the phone outside of it. 

When five minutes were up, I released my four year old from the back seat, and set off across the parking lot, still on the phone. "I can hear the whistling," laughed Shelly. "I better let you go be mom!" And in this, Pastor Shelly showed me her heart. A woman who sits on the executive board of the 10th largest church in America, who trains hundreds of leaders, who is in the business of healing hearts and saving souls, and who is also an avid runner and gardener and has her contractor's licence, is letting me off the phone. But on that laundry list of things she is, Shelly is a mom, and she loves being a mom. She knows what I'm doing is important. And you know what, I love it! I'm the woman she thinks I am after all.