The Stories We Tell Ourselves

The stories we tell ourselves matter. In this time of the coronavirus pandemic, there is a meme floating around that illustrates this powerfully.

But it applies more broadly, as well. I’ve been thinking about the stories I’ve told myself throughout my life. I remember, in my twenties, desperately wanting Matt to get a good job, so that I could quit my job and have babies and stay home and raise them. I literally didn’t know what to do with myself when that wasn’t happening. Part of that was truly a desire of my heart – from the time I was little, I have always been determined that I wanted to have children and build a family. My new year’s resolution at the age of 4 was to have lots of babies! And I wanted to take care of my babies – I had worked in daycare, and I knew that I didn’t want my kids spending 40+ hours a week there. But also, I had fully embraced the story that good Christian women got married, had babies, and quit their jobs. As a rule-following perfectionist, obviously this was what I was going to do. I remember being absolutely shocked when my therapist at the time suggested that not everything was absolutely black and white, and perhaps there was a way that I could have children while also working. WHO KNEW?!?

And now, at the age of 37, I have had (and adopted) the babies. I am raising them (while working part time). We have a good life. And yet – I wonder about the stories I am embracing and occupying.

It is ironic to me that a major catalyst for both Matt and me examining the stories we tell ourselves was our participation in the evangelical movement of adoption. Adoption seemed, on the surface, to contain the perfect story of beauty and redemption – there is a child who has no family, and I step in and become their family, just like God had adopted me into His family while I, a sinner, had been an orphan separated from Him, and we all celebrate this triumph. But wait. That child DID have a family at one point. Why do they not have a family anymore? Could there be evil involved there? Perhaps that evil is direct. Maybe there was trafficking. Perhaps it is murkier – pervasive systems of injustice, poverty, and racism. Also, need it be said that I am no savior? Any story I tell in which the analogy sets me up to be the God-figure deserves to be questioned. And while my adoption into God’s family is described as a transition from sin and brokenness to love and wholeness, my child left one beautiful language and culture in order to be assimilated into another lifestyle – that is a loss. The reality is far more gray than the story we tell.

I began to realize that that might be true for other stories, too. I’m reading Glennon Doyle’s book, Untamed.

She writes of women, “[W]e do not honor our own bodies, curiosity, hunger, judgment, experience, or ambition. Instead, we lock away our true selves. Women who are best at this disappearing act earn the highest praise: She is so selfless. Can you imagine? The epitome of womanhood is to lose one’s self completely” (p 116).

I wonder – where is my self? I don’t know.

I spent the first seven years of Matt’s and my marriage working to pay off debt and support him as he pursued the career of his dreams, and I followed him to Missouri once he got that job offer for which we had both yearned. We had our first baby in 2010 and brought home our last in 2016, and I have fought to get everyone set up with every medical treatment and service that they need. I have been homeschooling everyone. These are good things. I have wanted to do every single one of them.

I have watched other people’s children and delivered more meals than I can count. I have met with people to talk about all manner of struggles and offer what counsel I could. Those are also good things.

But I also wonder – am I living the life that God designed me to live? Am I using all of the gifts He has given me? Am I experiencing the resonance that comes with doing what I was born to do?

Glennon Doyle also writes, “I quit spending my life trying to control myself and began to trust myself. We only control what we don’t trust. We can either control our selves or love our selves, but we can’t do both. Love is the opposite of control. Love demands trust” (p 116).

I excel at self-control.

And she says specifically of motherhood, “Mothers have martyred themselves in their children’s names since the beginning of time. We have lived as if she who disappears the most, loves the most. We have been conditioned to prove our love by slowly ceasing to exist…When we call martyrdom love we teach our children that when love begins, life ends. This is why Jung suggested: There is no greater burden on a child than the unlived life of a parent. What if love is not the process of disappearing for the beloved but of emerging for the beloved? What if a mother’s responsibility is teaching her children that love does not lock the lover away but frees her? What if a responsible mother is not one who shows her children how to slowly die but how to stay wildly alive until the day she dies? What if the call of motherhood is not to be a martyr but to be a model?” (p 128).

I do not feel like I am wildly alive.

I debate with myself about whether this matters. Is this just a first world problem? Am I having a mid-life crisis? Do other people feel this way? Am I selfish to want to feel wildly alive?

I believe in a wholehearted love of my people. I believe that love is sometimes – often – sacrifice. Jesus tells us, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13). Even as He laid down His life, He did not lay down His self. He fulfilled all of who He was as He lived – and died – on earth.

Am I fulfilling my self as I go about my daily life? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I like my life. I like the work I do. I want to keep doing it. And yet, I think there is more to it than being whatever anyone else needs me to be in any given moment. I don’t know what that looks like. Glennon Doyle writes, “Heartbreak delivers your purpose…We all want purpose and connection. Tell me what breaks your heart, and I’ll point you toward both” (p 269).

I just started the book Defiant: What the Women of Exodus Teach Us about Freedom, by Kelley Nikondeha, last weekend. In her introduction, Sarah Bessey writes, “For too long the notion of biblical womanhood has felt weak and ineffectual, a cookie-cutter version of a 1950s sitcom that didn’t even exist in real life, and yet it crippled and silenced generations of women in the church. In Defiant, Kelley lays out a feast for us of the truth about biblical womanhood: the resistance, the strength, the civil disobedience, the collaboration, the truth-telling, the drumming, the wit, the holy liberated power of women who know their God. She connects everything she learned from the women of Exodus to the women of our past and our time whose subversive strength continues to spell the downfall of evil and injustice. In these pages, you will learn to recognize women at work. This book is more than permission; it’s a clear call to rise up to the Exodus mandate for all of us” (p x-xi).

That sounds so inspiring for me. I wonder, can I be part of that?

I don’t really know what to do or how to do it.

I want to try to figure it out. I want to be part of that story.

Temporary Homeschooling Tips, Part Two: Schedules

Yesterday I published a post with some general advice for those who may be temporarily homeschooling children due to the coronavirus outbreak. The most frequent question I have gotten since then is about our schedule – how do we organize our day?

First, a disclaimer – we are homeschoolers, but by no means does that mean that we usually spend the entirety of our days at home. All four of our kids usually swim two to three times a week. The big kids and I usually ride horses at least a few times a month. We take “field trips” – we go to the zoo, we go to art shows, we go to the pumpkin farm, we go to parks. FangFang usually has weekly PT, and it feels like we always have a pediatrician or dentist or eye doctor or specialist appointment coming up for someone for some reason! All four kids participate in a homeschool enrichment group 3 mornings a month. Spending more time at home is a change for us, too.

That said, we do have a general routine to our days. Note that a routine is different than a schedule. To me, a schedule is based on specific times, and one of the things I appreciate about homeschooling is that it allows for flexibility and freedom to spend more time than planned on an area that is particularly difficult or especially interesting. Plus, I’m a control freak, and I get stressed out about schedules. Routines work well for us, though!

We divide our academic work into two different categories, loosely called “table school” and “couch school.” Table school is for subjects the kids do at the dining room table but also includes, for the older kids, any subjects on which they do their work independently. Couch school is for subjects we do together on the couch. For the older kids (4th grade and 3rd grade), table school is math, independent reading, and sometimes Language Arts. For the younger kids (kindergarten and pre-k), table school is math and Language Arts.

Each night before I go to bed, I write out assignments for table school for the older two kids for the next morning.

If I’m on top of things, I might get out school books for everyone the night before, as well, but that’s not super frequent 😉 The older kids are quite capable of getting their own materials.

The older kids’ job is to come downstairs when they wake up, get themselves breakfast (or ask for help getting breakfast), and get started on their table school work. I’ve found that they find table school more challenging than couch school – perhaps because they are expected to do more independently – and so it goes better if we start with that. There is no specific wake-up or start time – my kids all usually wake up once they’ve gotten enough sleep, and they just start once they are awake (usually by 8:00 or 8:30, sometimes earlier or later).

After I have breakfast, I start table school with the younger kids.

Everyone gets a break after table school. I would say, on average, we’re all finishing up table school between 10:00 and 10:30, but it can vary pretty widely. What that break looks like depends on the day and whether everyone is ready for a break at the same time or whether the big kids and little kids are finishing up their work at very different times. Regardless, each kiddo definitely gets a break, though I may stay busy working with one group and then the next. Sometimes that break is just free play time. Sometimes we all go for a walk. Now that we’ll no longer have swimming as part of our regular weekly activities, we will need to be sure we’re getting enough physical activity, so I’m hoping we can go for walks more frequently. Otherwise, we might play outside or do some Cosmic Kids Yoga, or I may put together some more active work-out type activities to do with everyone.

What we do next depends on the time. Often times we can move on to couch school, but sometimes we need to break for lunch at that point.

Couch school subjects are always History, Science, and Bible. For the little kids, we also do Literature and Reading as couch school subjects; for the older kids, Language Arts is sometimes a couch school subject, depending on what we need to do that day. Whether the big kids or little kids do their couch school subjects first depends on who finished table school first that day. Usually I sit together with each group on the couch, and we read each of our books and discuss them. Often times the big kids will join us for the little kids’ books – I’m reading the same books with the little kids that I read with the big kids 5 years ago, so those stories feel like old friends to them!

After we’ve finished lunch and our couch school subjects, we do some clean-up. In particular, the common areas of the house (the living room and dining room) need to be picked up. Sometimes I’ll also have kids work on cleaning their own rooms or doing their family teamwork jobs (things like sweeping, unloading the dishwasher, vacuuming, cleaning the bathrooms, etc).

Then we have our afternoon downtime. Sometimes we’ll all have independent quiet time in separate rooms. Sometimes we’ll all sit in the living room for half an hour and read our own books. After that, almost every day, the kids are allowed to watch 1-2 hours of tv while I work. I have a very flexible part-time job, and I try to get in at least an hour of work each afternoon.

What happens after that really depends on the timing. Sometimes we’ll transition straight from that downtime into dinner prep. Sometimes there will be time for a fun activity together. This is another window into which I’m hoping to fit some free play and time outdoors and exercise.

We all have dinner together as a family, during which we go around the table, and each person shares their high of the day, their low of the day, their buffalo (something strange or interesting), something kind they did that day, and something they’re looking forward to.

After dinner we might do a family activity, or the kids might all play independently. Every child also needs to finish any family teamwork jobs that they did not do earlier in the day. Atticus really likes to play Wii or Xbox, and this is the only window of the day in which we allow that, and sometimes MeiMei or FangFang will play with him.

Around 8:00 Matt puts the little kids to bed, and between 8:30 and 8:45, the big kids and I head upstairs for their bedtime routine. After they’re ready for bed, they snuggle with me in my bed, and that’s when I do Literature with them, reading to them as bedtime stories.

The routine is subject to adjustment, as needed, but it’s the general structure we follow for each of our days! As always, feel free to ask questions and let us know if I can help in any way 🙂

Some Tips for the Temporarily Homeschooling

We, like most Americans, are wondering what the coming days and weeks hold, as we wait on the brink of the coronavirus spreading more widely within the States. Three of the six members of our household have medical conditions that could complicate our prognosis in the event that we were to contract the virus, and we also find the argument for flattening the curve to be highly persuasive, so, when possible, we have started limiting our interactions with those outside of our household.

We, of course, already homeschool, but a number of families may be facing unexpected days or weeks of children being home from school. I posted on Facebook that I would be happy to give suggestions and/or resources to anyone who will unexpectedly have children home for some period of time, and I received a number of comments and messages requesting advice, so I’m sharing here some general suggestions.

First of all, I don’t think that any unexpected time away from a school setting has to be spent 100% focused on academics. This can be a great time to build relationships and just enjoy spending time together as a family. Additionally, there are so many fun ways to learn.

My older girls practice math skills by playing games (some favorites are Yahtzee and Masterpiece)…

…and baking (an activity we are hoping to resume soon – but one of the tasks on our list for today is to order a new range, as our oven died last week!). My oldest likes to make up her own recipes, which used to cause me a lot of stress…until I realized that even if the result was terrible, the worst consequence would be that I was out a couple dollars worth of ingredients. She would have had a great time and had the opportunity to explore an area in which she is interested.

Art projects are another great option for fun learning!

But also, I recognize that many families will want to continue some more formal academic pursuits for their children, and I think there is wisdom in that.

For the pre-school crowd, kids truly learn best through play, so my suggestions would be pretty simple – have some good toys available (puzzles, blocks, magna tiles, art supplies, play dough, railroad tracks), and avail yourself of those, in addition to reading to your children. Reading aloud is truly the most academic that I would get with young children. Many kids do best with some structure, so it might be helpful to create some sort of routine that will work well for your family, but it is simply not necessary to have a very detailed schedule focused heavily around academics.

For children in early elementary school, much of what they learn does not rely on prior knowledge – it doesn’t build on itself in a way that is entirely necessary. The same social studies or science concept can just as easily be taught to a 6-year-old as to an 8-year-old and vice versa. Kids can learn about plants, animals, chemistry, and space in any order at all. And I can think of no essential concept in those areas that is going to be taught to an early elementary school student and never revisited. That means that unless your school gives you specific guidance, it is not of paramount importance to study any particular concepts in an exact order. Doing some study of science, history, and social studies would be lovely, but really any area of interest of yours or your children’s would be a great focal point.

Beyond those generalities, if I were going to be temporarily homeschooling my children, I would focus my attention on 3 areas –

(1) Reading. I’d figure out where my child was at with reading and continue working with them to build their skills in those areas. You probably have a number of resources in your home already that will allow you to do that. If you’re wondering what a sample reading program might look like, we’ve used Sonlight’s programs for years. You can check out their offerings here (we’ve used every program listed here from Kindergarten through the E Readers). Obviously you will not need a full year’s program, but looking at these books can give you an idea of what sort of books you might already have at home that you could use in working with your child on reading. For kids who can do some independent reading, those with Kindle Freetime Unlimited have access to huge numbers of free books on e-readers. The Epic app is also a great resource for e-books for kids.

(2) Math. This is another area in which skills do build on one another, and it is helpful if your child continues to learn and grow. Ideally, you could figure out what curriculum your child is using and where they are with it and work with them there, but even doing some workbooks at your child’s general level or reviewing math facts could be helpful. The math app that we find most helpful for our older two kids is Xtra Math – it’s a game that helps kids build their addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division facts. It learns which facts your children need to practice most and works with them on those.

(3) Reading out loud to your child. Children, especially at young ages, can comprehend so much more than they can read themselves. They learn so much by having their adults read to them. You can read literature or non-fiction science or history books or any mix thereof. Reading with children is a great way to bond, to share experiences, to have great discussions, and to learn together. Our times curling up on the couch or snuggling in bed and reading together are some of the highlights of my kids’ and my days. My older two kids and I recently read through the Harry Potter series, and it was such a joy for all of us to share that experience together. You can also use those times of reading aloud to teach your children about history or science. Our core curriculum is from Sonlight, and many of their read-aloud packages include some great historical fiction that truly brings history alive in a different way than textbook reading does. We’ve read books like the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, Caddie Woodlawn, Johnny Tremain, and The Witch at Blackbird Pond, among many others. My kids have also greatly enjoyed reading books about science (Sonlight packages here) – books about space, animals, plants, how things work, and much more. You may already have a lot of these books or others that are similar in your home, or you could consider ordering a few that look interesting to you and your children.

You could also do some writing – practicing handwriting or just having kids copy out a sentence or two of good writing – to keep kids learning in those areas, but my top three areas of focus would be what I’ve listed above. If you’re a more fun mom than I am, doing science experiments together could also be a great option for learning!

For older children, I’d try to find some creative and fun ways to challenge them to grow while also keeping them engaged and interested. For instance, even children as young as 8 or 9 can do research projects – MeiMei and Miranda both wrote research papers last year about animals (MeiMei’s was on hummingbirds and Miranda’s was about cats). This year they each tackled a different science topic, with MeiMei learning about how sharks’ gills work and Miranda focusing on the planet of Mars. We’re about to dive into a project in which they each research and write a report about a state. Obviously older children would be capable of learning about even more complex topics or delving into them in more detail in a report or presentation.

Students might also read and learn and think and perhaps write about historical or philosophical topics – comparing and contrasting the Jesus of the Bible with To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch and/or Atlas Shrugged’s John Galt. There is more than enough classic literature to reach well beyond what any middle school or high school curriculum can include fully, and this would be a great time for students to check out some of the books on Sonlight’s readers lists or google a list like, “100 books to read before college.” Reading and discussing books like these would be a great learning experience.

This spring would be an excellent opportunity for students of any age to learn about the election process in the United States, following primary voting, learning about any current issues that interest them, or researching the history of suffrage in the United States. Sonlight has a free downloadable unit study or a US elections lapbook kit.

This time, facing the unknowns of a global pandemic, can obviously be stressful. However, it can also provide a beautiful opportunity for us to spend time together as families, and there are so many ways in which we can nurture our children’s minds even outside of school settings and large group gatherings.

Please let me know if you have additional questions or if there are other ways I can help! And if you’re local and would like to borrow some resources from our homeschool library, we would be happy to loan out whatever we can!

God as Gendered

Years ago, a book called The Shack was released and stirred a great deal of controversy within the evangelical Christian world, in part because of its portrayal of God the Father as a large Black woman. Interested in what it was really all about, I picked up a copy of the book and actually enjoyed it a great deal. No, I don’t picture God the Father as a large Black woman – but neither do I picture Him as an old white dude with a flowing, snow-white beard, XY chromosomes, and a penis. The God who exists outside of space and time, who spoke the universe into being, creating it ex nihilo, who created us in His image – I don’t think He can be reduced to either of those human-like representations.

I liked what the God character said in the book, when asked why She was showing up as a woman – “I am neither male nor female, even though both genders are derived from my nature. If I choose to appear to you as a man or a woman, it’s because I love you…Hasn’t it always been a problem for you to embrace me as your Father? And after what you’ve been through, you couldn’t very well handle a father right now, could you?” The main character, “knew she was right, and he realized the kindness and compassion in what she was doing. Somehow, the way she had approached him had skirted his resistance to her love. It was strange and painful and maybe even a little bit wonderful.”

Isn’t that who and what God is? Showing up in ways we don’t expect? Looking different than what we thought? Demonstrating compassion and kindness? Working in our lives in ways that are strange and painful and wonderful?

I just finished reading Sarah Bessey’s latest book, Miracles and Other Reasonable Things, and one of the most encouraging parts of it was her description of her thought process in imagining God mothering her.

She writes, “Most of us identify God in parental terms as a father – and that is deeply meaningful to me as well…But just as my own father gave me a glimpse of God’s good character, so did my mother. She could not be erased from the goodness of God’s expression…I find that the older I get, the more I care for the ones I love and for the world, the more I need both – I need both the energy of the mother and of the father. I need the fullness of the expression of God, not a lopsided caricature of either. And in times of suffering or loss or exhaustion, it has turned out that I needed a mother” (p. 172-173).

And she tells of how this has played out in her life recently, saying, “This has been the question God has given to me as a practice of spiritual discernment during my life with chronic pain: How would God like to mother me today? If God was a strong, patient, wise, kind, no-nonsense, deeply loving mother, what would She want for me today? It’s a great question to ask in prayer when I feel scattered and exhausted and empty” (p. 172). She notes, in her discussion of self-comfort versus self-care that, “Perhaps self-care is simply joining with God to care for ourselves as a mother would care for us” (p. 170).

I am well aware that this idea of God as Mother – or, really, as anything other than an old white dude – can be controversial among Christians. One of Rachel Held Evans’s last tweets before she died was, “I’ve written four books, hundreds of blog posts, and dozens of articles, and only once have I used a feminine pronoun for God. People still point to that as a reason I should be killed in order to quicken my eternal torment in hell. No joke.”

And yet, there is imagery of God as a mother in multiple Bible passages. Isaiah 66:13 says, “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” Psalm 131:2 says, “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.” Jesus compares Himself to a mother hen, saying, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37).

I’m finding myself comforted tonight, thinking about God as both Father and Mother. I am encouraged as I think about the difference between self-comfort and self-care and how this image that Sarah Bessey sets forth of, ” If God was a strong, patient, wise, kind, no-nonsense, deeply loving mother, what would She want for me today?” can be a guide for me as I move forward. And I am thankful for the men and women who have gone before me, who are reflecting back for us the wildness, the nurture, and the utterly-beyond-gendered-ness of the Living God.

Christmas 2019

This year we traveled to Wisconsin for Christmas, and it was the first year in quite a few that my brothers and I and my parents were all in the same place for Christmas! It was so good to see everyone and have that time together <3

My three youngest kiddos helped my mom decorate her tree (she promised to leave off the ornaments so they could assist – and this way there was no pressure for me to get out a tree and decorate, which was great, because I did not want to do it).

The next day was our extended family Christmas party, which included, of course, a game. My family is practically incapable of missing any opportunity for a competitive game.

We went bowling again 🙂

There was early morning art-making…

…and all-day-long snuggling with this girl <3

We’ve also outgrown my mother’s house (by which I mean that me having 4 kids means that I have put us in a position of having outgrown my mother’s house), so Danny and Sharon stayed at a hotel nearby, which wasn’t always ideal (particularly when Danny came down with pneumonia later in the week and wanted nothing more than to sleep all day), but it did give us an opportunity to go swimming – and all of the kids thought that swimming with uncles who can turn into train engines or throw you high in the air was pretty awesome 🙂

One thing we’ve done a couple times now that I’ve loved is had a family book discussion. This year we read and discussed Casey Cep’s Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee. I always enjoy the opportunity to discuss books with other people, and our little family holiday book club has been a highlight for me.

I’ve always liked the idea of matching pajamas but hated the cost, but this year Miranda and I saw $5 matching fleece pants at Target, and that seemed like a good compromise. This was our Christmas morning photo (or 4 that Matt cropped together!).

We did our annual cookie decorating.

And of course there was a significant amount of game playing!

Everyone is really into Legos right now, and Atticus made several creations during our time in Wisconsin.

Miranda has been asking to get her ears pierced for a while now. Our stance on it has been that as long as you are old enough to care for your piercings appropriately, it is your body and your choice. However, as this is a “want” and not a “need,” it is something you either have to pay for yourself or request as a gift. Danny and Sharon said they would take Miranda to get her ears pierced for her Christmas present (and doing so in Wisconsin actually requires less documentation and is cheaper – yay!), so one afternoon, Sharon, Miranda, and I went and got her ears pierced. She looks so grown up <3

On our last day, Matt and I took advantage of the Discovery World membership we bought last year, when we realized that it was cheaper to buy an annual membership than to pay for one visit for our family of six! The kids were going a bit stir crazy, so it was nice to get out and give them a chance to run around (and, of course, to learn!).

It was so good to have this time with family and celebrate together, and I’m already looking forward to the next time we can see everyone again – as is Miranda, who has been writing letters to each of our family members, one by one, lobbying for future visits!