The Meaning of Children: Guests

The Meaning of Children

In May FDW is hosting a new series on  stories from people in all walks of life and their observations of children and what they make us. Click here for more on the series and a list of the contributors. This post was written by a good friend from seminary days, theologian, writer, scholar, and beautiful, new mama, Stina Busman Jost. 

When it comes to children, I consider myself pretty knowledgeable. Because I’ve been one for 36 years.

When it comes to raising children, I am that adult sitting in the shallow end of the pool, flailing her arms and legs all about. I’m not drowning, but I’m definitely not swimming yet. I find my little 4-month-old to be an enigma. An adorable squeaky little enigma, but an enigma nonetheless.

Henri Nouwen, in Bread for the Journey, talks about children as guests of their parents – strangers that come and stay for a little while. That, my friends, rings so true. I am regularly in a state of wonder (okay, maybe bewilderment) about this little guest who so boldly has entered my life and goes by the name Ruthie.

But even as I get to know this tiny stranger, I myself am still a child. I am the child of my mother, who is the child of her mother, who is dying. We are all children – moving in different rhythms and seasons. And with my daughter in this world – as I learn her needs and wants – I find myself wanting and needing my mother more than ever, as she is wanted and needed by her own mother.

Perhaps the most profound insight that has arisen from the sleepy haze that is early parenthood is just that: we need each other. Birth is a reminder of this truth. But so is death. We need a tribe to surround us when we begin, but we also need our people as we lose our memories and take our final breaths. We long for a family to journey with us – whether that family is spiritual, biological, or a beautiful mix of friends and neighbors.

We need each other. We were made that way.

On Tuesday afternoons I drop Ruthie off at my parents’ house and head off to my theology classes at Bethel University. It’s become known as “Tuesdays with Ruthie.” My parents are my people. And they have become Ruthie’s people, too. As I teach about atonement and salvation, they change diapers and give bottles.

They even babywear. Last Tuesday in the middle of my lecture I saw a picture pop up on my phone of my dad vacuuming while wearing Ruthie in a front pack. Yes, that’s right. My dad. Babywearing and cleaning the carpet at the same time. He’s amazing. And let’s be honest, I don’t think I could manage that.

My grandma’s assisted-living facility is just down the road from Bethel. So most Tuesday evenings my mom drives Ruthie there, and I meet them after I’m done teaching.

On her good days, my grandma lights up when we carry the car seat into her room with the tiny one in it. Ruthie brings my grandma delight. But there’s something else going on, too. My grandma seems satisfied after our visits. What I’ve come to realize is that Ruthie isn’t simply a smiley little guest we bring to see her great-grandmother. Ruthie has a role to play. She is needed too.

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Ruthie meets her great-grandmother’s need to nurture. At the end of life, there is such a pronounced need to have care, to be cared for. When we sit at my grandma’s bedside, little Ruthie becomes her focus. Hearing the needs of Ruthie is what she needs. She asks about Ruthie’s habits – her eating, her sleeping. And then like many individuals with dementia, my grandma asks the same questions again. And again. The beautiful thing is, that’s perfectly fine with Ruthie.

Ruthie won’t remember these visits, but I will remind her of them when she’s older – not simply to tell Ruthie her history, although that’s important. I want Ruthie to know that she always has had a role in meeting people’s needs. And I hope she embraces this role as her own. I want to love her well so that she in turn can love well. I want to meet her needs so that she can meet the needs of others.

So there we gather on Tuesdays as the sun sets. Me, my little enigma, my sweet mama, and my grandmother. Four generations of women. Learning and teaching the lessons of community – needing and being needed.


StinaStina Busman Jost lives on a little acreage in Minnesota with her husband, her very large dog, and her tiny baby. She is the author of Walking with the Mud Flower Collective: God’s Fierce Whimsy and Dialogic Theological Method. She teaches theology and ethics at Bethel University. Books are one of her primary love languages. She likes using her sewing machine and eats gluten-free (shout out to all fellow celiacs!). 

The Meaning of Children: Everything Wrong

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In May FDW is hosting a new series on  stories from people in all walks of life and their observations of children and what they make us. Click here for more on the series and a list of the contributors. This post was written by Laura Kelly Fanucci – someone I consider a kindred spirit – her writing always articulates what I need to hear at any moment. Today’s blog was originally posted here.

I sat there squirming in my seat, fingers cramping from writing too fast, frantically trying to scribble down everything she said.

Publicity must done be in advance of publication; six months minimum if you want anyone to notice; early early early is all that matters.

A solitary Saturday, a workshop with writers, a warm cup of tea in one hand and a copy of a book I’d written in the other. I thought it had the makings of a perfect morning.

Instead my head spun as the expert kept advising about agents and interviews and networking and advance reviews. While the only coherent phrase I could conjure was that stupid cliché: drinking from a fire hose. Gulp.

When the workshop slammed up against the clock and skidded to a halt, I skittered out of the classroom before anyone else had even snapped shut their sleek laptops. I called my husband from the snowy parking lot, stamping my boots free of slush, trying to laugh it off: I guess I should have been here a year ago. Oh well.

But as I drove home, coaxing my scattered thoughts back into settled silence, all I could think was that it felt so familiar. That frantic sense of feeling so lost, so stretched, so overwhelmed, so far behind the game that had only just begun.

It felt like when I first became a mom.  

. . .

Maybe you are blessed with uber-confident friends, but pretty much every parent I know is convinced they’re screwing up somehow.

I used to think it was unavoidable in these blurry early years, when everything is brand-new and we’re all amateurs and our training is on the job.

So many small stumbles. The night I lost my temper at a sleepless baby only to learn he was cutting shining pearls of new teeth. Or the week I was convinced the toddler was misbehaving and it turned out he had a double ear infection. The days I hollered at one child and the culprit turned out to be the other one.

Mini mistakes in the long run. But in those sinking moments, it still felt like I’d failed the ones who had been entrusted to me. Like I’d done exactly the opposite of what they needed.

But as years passed, I started listening to all those older and wiser and calmer parents, the ones I hope I might become someday. Turns out they feel they’ve done plenty wrong, too. Too little or too late, too much or too long. What can you do but forgive yourself?

Rare is the sweet spot sensation, the celebratory whoop of having nailed it. More familiar is the fumbling, the floundering, the fudging of our own uncertainty under a thin but hopeful veneer. We’re trying. Tomorrow we’re going to try again. Most of the time, that’s enough.

Good things happen – to us, to our kids – either because of what we’ve done or in spite of it. Ditto for the bad things.

So this book stuff? It’s the same deal. Did I follow all the experts’ advice, did I do all the shoulds and musts and needs and have-tos, did I have any clue what I was doing when I first set out?

No. And that will be fine. It will be enough.

. . .

“You only know what you know,” the teacher tried to reassure me when I finally braved to raise my hand and ask what if it’s too late? “If the book came out in November, you can still do something. Probably.” What to do but shrug and smile?

I’ve heard the same consolation before. Don’t beat yourself up for what you didn’t know in the past. For what you didn’t do. For choices you made not knowing any better.

Even when it feels like we’ve done everything the wrong way, that moment of realization can still be a gift: the clarity that we’re actually doing something right. Because we’re still going. We’re still doing, guessing, hoping, moving forward, waking up again tomorrow and starting again.

The way winds long – whether it’s parenting or faith or simply trying to live as human in the world. And we’re still on it. We’re still going. We’re still doing plenty right.

. . .

The baby woke at 4 am. I stumbled into slippers and padded down the hall to his room. When I opened his door, he quieted at the sound of my voice. I scooped him up from his crib and felt my way to the rocker. I nursed him as I dozed, then he stirred and I roused to change his diaper. Moves I’ve done thousands of times before.

Only once I’d settled him back to sleep and I turned back to the door to feel for the knob – only then did I realize I’d done everything in the dark.

It’s been that way for two babies now, this knowing how to night-parent by instinct. Moving through the darkness, not even a nightlight to guide my steps, yet doing exactly what I need to do: nurse, change, soothe, love.

If I’d told myself when I was a brand-new mom that I wouldn’t need bedroom lights blazing to figure out how to latch the baby on correctly or how to change a diaper without making a mess, I would have laughed out loud. Impossible.

Now I’m learning to find my way in the dark. No expert taught me that. But it feels just right.


LKF headshot color (1)Laura Kelly Fanucci is a writer and mother of three. She is the author of Everyday Sacrament: The Messy Grace of Parenting and a Research Associate with the Collegeville Institute Seminars. She blogs about the intersections of spirituality and parenting at Mothering Spirit.

The Meaning of Children: Intimacy

The Meaning of Children

In May FDW is hosting a new series on  stories from people in all walks of life and their observations of children and what they make us. Click here for more on the series and a list of the contributors. This post was written by a good friend and sister – incredible writer – who has been an anchor for me here in Bloomington, April Hennessey.

Not so long ago in the hallway outside my son’s room, I caught the scent of my mother. It was some mixture of toothpaste, face cream and all of those other not quite identifiable but decidedly particular smells that make one person detectable to those who have loved him/her. It caught me off guard because I would be pretty quick to say that I don’t believe in the meeting of the living and the dead in those Long Island Mediums ways. And yet, whether conjured from the recesses of my memory or actually present in the ether, the scent of my mother lingered in the hallway. In those few seconds, I recalled the difficulty that the stairs posed as her illness progressed and the way she’d hung heavy in my arms when her legs finally gave out on her. Feeling half-terrified and half-foolish, I’d whispered, “mom?” and then I’d bolted down the stairs without waiting for an answer or the absence of an answer.

You’d be surprised how many near-holy moments happen in that small, liminal space of our house. Perhaps it’s simply because my defenses are worn down—from the day’s unrelenting pace and my son’s indefatigable energy—that I am left open to all the things that well up in and around me. I’ve sat in that hallway more times than I can count, slumped in despair, wondering how I’ll survive the year of the #threenager, cradling my son’s tantruming body, watching the minutes that I’d carved out for peace and quiet just tick by me tauntingly. And then it happens. “I’m ready,” he says. We walk to his bed where he cuddles up to me with his tear-streaked cheeks and says, “I like being close to you, mommy.”

As a child I was like my son—intensely feeling, intuitive and insistent. I suppose I’m not much different in adulthood. But I remember the desperation I felt at three or four for my mother’s presence, for her closeness. And when I stretch my memory back to that time, before the traumas that would fill our lives, before the anger and the defensiveness and the helplessness, I remember the quiet moments when I would beg her to stay just a little more and she would. “Scratch my back,” I’d say and she’d oblige. I can’t tell her how much better I understand and appreciate those strained and exhausted moments of mothering. And I can’t ask her, now, whether they filled her up even a little bit, the way these moments with my son fill me up. I do know, however, how quickly the practice of intimacy gets lost. After all, that’s what these hallway moments amount to.

As we get older, many of us lose the ability to communicate our needs, desires and deepest longings freely. We learn to censor ourselves. We discover fear and rejection. We close ourselves off to things that make us feel weak. We temper our enthusiasm for things and people so as not to appear “uncool” or “too eager.” We forget how to say, “I need you.” “Stay.” “Be close to me.” But our children haven’t yet learned those things. They are intimate with the whole world. They’ll announce their imminent bodily functions to entire grocery stores. They’ll tell their friends and teachers about ours. They don’t think twice about overwhelming us with their endless string of requests, “please-I want-give me-can you-I need.” In time, of course, that external narrative will become internal dialogue. They’ll become increasingly reticent. I hope, however, that my son continues to meet me in the various hallways of our lives. I hope that long after he’s learned to censor himself in the other places, he’ll still speak freely with me.

Just last night I got home late from a meeting. The babysitter told me that she hadn’t heard a peep from him in almost half an hour and that she thought he was finally asleep. As soon as she left, however, I heard his door open. I could tell that he was waiting at the threshold, sniffing me out. How did he know, I wondered? We had been so quiet in our comings and goings. Maybe he sensed the shifting energy or smelled me in the air. Whatever the case, I could almost feel his spidey-senses zeroing in on me. “Mommy? Is that you?” I walked up the stairs feeling exhausted, knowing where things were headed.

But then I saw him standing there in the shadows with his sleepy, impish smile. He nuzzled my nose through the space in the balustrades, “I’m so glad you’re home, Mommy. I missed you. Will you snuggle me?” “Okay,” I say as I take his small hand, “I’m so glad to see you too.” I mean it for my mother as well, for all the times we forgot to be glad and were angry instead. I’m still skeptical, but who am I to say what’s possible in this thin place between life and death, between parent and child. Perhaps she’s been sitting with us in the hallway all along. With a sense of renewed intimacy, I welcome her as my son welcomes me, heart wide open.


April Hennessey is the Family Life Coordinator at First United Church in Bloomington, Indiana and mother to one inquisitive, ever-moving three-year old boy. She has a Master’s degree in English Literature and continues to be a compulsive reader and analyzer of the ways in which we write our various histories. An occasional wordsmith, April is the keeper of a mostly lapsed blog over at despairwithasmile.blogspot.com. She is also a sometimes teacher, a reluctant organizer, a justice-seeker, an impulsive smiler and, generally, a people lover.

 

The Meaning of Children: Father of Three

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In May FDW is hosting a new series on  stories from people in all walks of life and their observations of children and what they make us. Click here for more on the series and a list of the contributors. This post was written by friend and colleague Adam Walker Cleaveland.

Sometimes when I introduce myself, or if someone asks me how many children I have, I like to say, “I’m the father of three, one living.”

Except for when I don’t. Except for when I don’t really want to get into it all.

“Is Caleb your only child?”

“Yes…” I say, as I remember holding Micah and Judah in my arms as their tiny lungs struggled to take in air. On October 25, 2010, my wife gave birth to Micah and Judah just shy of 20 weeks into our pregnancy. Micah was 10 ounces and Judah was 8 ounces.

That was the day I became a father, however it was not in the way I ever imagined.

***

People say kids change you.

As the father of a current 3.5 year old, I certainly agree with that. They can make you feel love and joy and warm fuzzies in ways that are beautiful. They can also make you lose your cool and be filled with frustration, anger and lots of thoughts you wouldn’t want other people to know you were thinking.

Caleb has helped me learn to love and appreciate children’s picture books. He’s helped me be silly and danced with me in elevators. He’s reminded me that I need to stop working and doing stuff that really doesn’t matter and take time to play more often. He’s taught me that there are many things in my life for which I need to be grateful.

I can’t wait to see what Caleb continues to teach me.

But even though Micah and Judah only lived about an hour after they were born, they taught me things too. They taught me that I was, in fact, ready to be a father, even though I was quite nervous about the prospect of being a dad.

They taught me that love can happen in an instant, and that even in moments of deep sadness and despair, love and beauty and God can be present.

I always hate it when people say “But God will use this horrible situation for good” – it often feels like a meaningless platitude, but Micah and Judah taught me that in many cases, it is still true.

It still really messes with my mind sometimes, when I stop to think about the reality that if Micah and Judah had been born when they were supposed to be, we never would have had Caleb. And I know that I would have loved Micah and Judah, but I can’t imagine a life without Caleb.

 ***

When you lose children, especially through infant loss (whether that’s stillbirth or a miscarriage or something else), you unfortunately join a club that no one wants to be in, that many people don’t talk about, and that includes way more people than you would imagine. It’s like you’re immediately thrust into this community of grievers, and you’ve joined them on this journey they never wanted to be on.

In the months that followed our loss in 2010, there were many women at the church I was working, in their 70s and 80s, who came up to me and told me about the miscarriages they had when they were younger. They shared their stories with me, and every one of them added something like, “I’ve never really talked about it before – we certainly didn’t talk about it back then.”

Through my blog DazedDad.com, the place I publicly worked through a lot of my grieving process, I have been in touch with many couples, and many men, who have lost children. For the men especially, many are thankful for a place where they can come and read about another man’s journey through grief, because there is a significant lack of resources for men going through infant loss.

Our lives were changed on December 30, 2011 when Caleb was born (thanks for the tax break, kid!). But our lives were also changed the year before, as we held our twin boys. Micah and Judah were simply born too early. But their short lives have impacted so many people that I can’t help but be a witness to the blessings amidst the loss.


Adam and CalebAdam Walker Cleaveland is a husband, father, pastor and artist. He loves thinking about the future of the church, playing with his son and drawing and sketchnoting. Adam blogs at Pomomusings.com, where he writes about ministry, theology, art and social media. You can find Adam online at adamwc.com, on Facebook at facebook.com/adamwc or on Twitter at @adamwc.

 

The Meaning of Children: Bad News

The Meaning of Children

In May FDW is hosting a new series on  stories from people in all walks of life and their observations of children and what they make us. Click here for more on the series and a list of the contributors. This post was written by my hero and someone I consider  basically my pastor, and he’s just amazing, Rocky Supinger.

Kids are good news and bad news.

For my parents, with their two sons, that dichotomy has displayed itself in stark terms as a tale of two sons, both good and both bad. One is a desperate-for-acceptance lemming who would sooner watch you drown than risk the ridicule of wet clothes (that’s me), the other is an impoverished savior who gives all he has away to people in need, strangers and friends alike. The latter dropped out of high school in 9th grade and got himself legally emancipated at 15 into a world of short-term jobs, drinking, drugs, and exploitative relationships. The other is a minister–but in a denomination that, to their moral horror, both ordains and marries gay people.

I often look at my daughter, who turns seven today, and see only the potential for bad. She’s a cherub, for sure. But even in her infancy I did this. Her hungry or tired cry, I was certain, held the seeds of rebellion, and I could vividly imagine a scene in which she shrieked “I hate you!” before slamming her bedroom door. Voicing this perception to my spouse both baffled and upset her. “She’s a baby,” she would protest. “Not your brother.”

My own badness comes out of her too. The other day she professed a serious resolve to be “more normal.” I nearly blacked out from the visceral identification with that desire and the searing awareness of the cruelty and loss it engenders. Right away I imagined my angel standing silently by as friends jeered a classmate, as I had done countless times, all for the sake of “normal.”

Here’s the bad news of parenthood: our most upsetting visions of our kids’ potential for malevolency are just as likely as not to come true, regardless of our parenting inputs. I think of my parents’ grief at my abandoning them to their hotel room for an entire weekend in which they had travelled to see a college play I was in. I was socializing with my friends. What had they done to deserve that? Nothing. Hadn’t they raised me better? Yes.

Too bad.

The good news, though, is that our kids will perform acts of courage and moral fortitude of which we are not capable, and they will do these, again, despite our parenting inputs. Hours of permitting my daughter to stare at an iPad will not condemn her to sociopathy. Case in point: the other day, in the midst of some family trauma, my wife delicately attempted to explain suicide to our daughter, who, for her part, returned an indignant lecture about all the things a person could do with their sadness–like, write it down and burn it–instead of harming themselves. Both her mother and I were baffled as to the origins of that vision.

I’m alternately comforted and terrified by the apparent inefficacy of parenting. This is surely overstating things, but our children are their own people who will soar into virtue and wallow into vice in their own way, and both our best attempts to guide them and our worst betrayals of them have less effect on their ultimate character than we think. They are marvels to elicit our wonder more than projects for us to perfect. They will inspire us one moment and destroy us the next more simply because, like us, they are human, and not because of how we parented them.

Thank God for that.


Rocky Rocky Supinger in a Presbyterian minister, prolific writer, blogger, podcaster, thinker and inspirer. Follow him on Twitter at @yorocko or read his blog here.