Thursday, March 08, 2007

Expecting Christmas

I think it was the first time I stuck my finger up some one else’s nose that I realized motherhood wasn’t quite what I’d pictured it to be. Every new mom notices that her tolerance for “disgusting” skyrockets shortly after the new arrival makes its debut. There isn’t a body part, fluid or function that I haven’t gotten closer acquainted with since my kids were born.

This has convinced me that the most compelling reason to have your baby in a hospital is that someone else cleans up after you. (Which is not going to happen at home for the next five years). I had each of my three kids at Stanford Hospital. Two were induced, and I had epidurals with all of them. Two were big (upwards of 9lbs), one was small (less than 8lbs) and during my labors, which were long, my sisters sneaked cups of Jamba Juice smoothies in to me. The rooms I stayed in were clean, people brought me food, ice packs and towels, and an army of nurses and their assistants marched in every half hour to make sure both my baby and me were still showing vital signs. While I would have appreciated the little vampire who showed up to take a blood sample at 5:30 in the morning to wait a few hours, I was well cared for, which I expected.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus was born in a barn, which historians tell us, was more likely a cave than the snug, nativity tableau we’re all familiar with. It wasn’t clean, it wasn’t warm and it probably smelled like manure. The only doula Mary had was her first time father/husband, who was a carpenter, not a farmer, and therefore unlikely to know much about childbirth. No one gave her ice chips, pain meds or swaddling lessons, and she had to figure out breastfeeding on her own. It took me four weeks and three lactation consultants to figure out how to nurse my first son and I flashed everyone within viewing range in the process.

In a culture where pregnant women were supposed to be kept in seclusion from when they started showing until a month postpartum, Mary was both a revolutionary and an outcast, a fitting presentiment for the life of her child. She never expected to be pregnant before her wedding, miles from home in her third trimester or enduring labor in the company of barnyard animals. But when God chose her, she listened. Months ago, an angel visited her with the news that she was to give birth to the Son of the Most High. And her answer, was “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” (Luke 2:26-38) So here she is, exhausted from labor, far from her family, stuck in a cave, surrounded by shepherds, struggling to nurse the Creator of the Universe.

Today’s rendition of Christmas is superficial and sterile compared the barn in Bethlehem. It’s obligatory and efficient. We’ve eroded the rustic magic, the mystery and the staggering irony. It’s sadly appropriate that we’ve deteriorated to the innocuous, noncommittal, “Happy Holidays.” For what is Christmas without Christ, but an excuse for rabid greed and materialism? And frankly, who needs to practice selfishness? What, exactly, is “Christmas spirit?” Optimism? Generosity? Tolerating relatives? Fascination with lights?

Christmas is that Jesus’ cosmic plunge from the throne of heaven to the arms of a teenage girl gave us the promise that love is stronger than evil, hate and even death. Such is Christmas as it should be understood. The light, shining in the darkness and the darkness mute and uncomprehending. (John 1:5) During his life on earth, Jesus made a habit of turning people’s expectations upside down. Mary expected to marry Joseph, settle down in Nazareth and raise a family. The Jews expected their Messiah to be a king and lead them out from under Roman oppression.

I don’t know what I expected from motherhood, but it wasn’t chaotic multi-tasking, strained finances, crowded closets, tiny socks, assistant chefs, crooked grins, lisped songs, enthusiastic hugs or delighted discoveries that I experience daily. Mary didn’t have a stranglehold on her expectations, or God never would have been able to use her. She agreed to be the Lord’s servant and follow his directions. Jesus came to help me do the same. I’d rather release my expectations and anticipate the grace, hope, joy and peace that his promise brings. I’m counting on Christmas to help me remember that.

The Taming of This Shrew

When I was in fifth grade I won the Big Mouth award in my church youth group. My parents weren’t surprised. I come from a long line of hecklers and peanut gallery members. So I’m not shocked when I hear my habits reflected in the retorts of my boys like, “I’m going to throw you in the dungeon,” or “I hope the hot lava gets you,” when I make them do things they don’t like. And while I’ve never threatened them with incarceration or volcanic ash, I hear the frustration and fury in their voices and it sounds oddly familiar, like something out of my own mouth.

My lifelong struggle with shutting my mouth is one of my biggest barriers to compassionate parenting. Several weeks ago, my three-year-old son Liam refused to pedal his bicycle to gymnastics. It was nap time on a day that he should have slept, but I let him watch TV instead. If he had napped, he wouldn’t have woken up for his class. Instead, I had the bright idea to ride our bikes the mile there and back, a distance he had ridden several times. This trip, however, was full of excuses. “My legs won’t work. The pedal is broken. I can’t do it. My feet are falling off. I want my penguin blankey!” he wailed. We were ten minutes into our trip and had gone about twenty feet.

As my frustration built, what came out of my mouth were not words of compassion or encouragement for a tired little boy, but the biting words of stinging rejection, “Suck it up and ride. You’re not even trying. Stop being a stupid baby and pedal your darn bike. If you can’t manage that, we’ll just leave you here!” And I pedaled far enough ahead of him to reduce him to sobs.

Looking over my shoulder, I saw Liam get onto his bike quivering, and follow his five-year-old brother Skyler down the sidewalk. Later he would say, “I did it, Mommy. I rode my bike.” And while I congratulated and hugged him, I felt nasty and cold. By throwing my own fit, I effectively communicated that Liam would only receive love when he performed.

My behavior was just a bigger, uglier rendition of his temper tantrum. It’s humiliating. I’m so disgusted by the destructive dribble flooding out of my mouth that sometimes I want to crawl out of my own skin. I think of Liam, crushed and tired, and like Peter, realizing he betrayed Christ, I want to hide and weep.

When my kids are obnoxious, I rationalize my reaction by claiming fatigue, provocation or, well, PMS. But, Ephesians 4:20 says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” My flippant remarks send the opposite message to my kids. Even in my easily, irritated exhaustion, I need to pause. I need God to step into that moment between thought and reaction, to temper my words. To remind me that not only am I his beloved creation, but Liam is too and if I am not controlling my tongue, any other aspects of my life that exemplify Christ are worthless.

I had an opportunity to practice this recently. We were late for a birthday party and I was scrambling to find some wrapping paper, or at least a paper bag, when both boys disappeared upstairs. They were silent for so long that I asked them what they were doing. More silence. Then Liam said, “Hey Mommy, did you know if you throw a waffle at the fan it explodes and flies all over the room?”

Yes, the waffles had syrup on them. And yes, there were several pieces stuck onto the walls and the wet carpet of the freshly steamed study floor. But, I remember throwing cereal boxes at the fan in the staff lounge as a camp counselor. So I laughed. And I’m so glad because later that day, when Liam and I were cooking, an activity he loves, he turned to me and said, “Mommy, I just like you so much.” I hugged him and said, “Oh, Liam, I love you too!”

God, if I can’t keep my mouth shut, then fill it with your words of love and compassion.

Smile Lines

When I was eighteen, I almost got a tattoo. I was in England for a summer literature program and thought it would be a good idea to have the Snoopy character Woodstock permanently etched on my rear end. I didn’t follow through for two reasons: my friend, who agreed to go first, screamed throughout her entire turn. And second, I imagined what Woodstock would look like when I turned sixty--sad, saggy, sallow and swaddled in Depends™ undergarments! I settled for triple piercing my left ear with a sewing needle.

Today, the symbolic scars of teenage irreverence have faded. Instead my body is a vivid historical map of the past four years. Three pregnancies have left a spider web of stretch marks and my hair is growing back in strange patches from the last post-partum hormone imbalance. The exhaustion is seeping into my face. I hope it isn’t irreversible.

Recently, I found myself sitting next to an older woman, Margaret, at a ladies’ brunch. “Did you have children?” I asked her.

She nodded and smiled. “Four, actually. In six years.”

During the course of our conversation, I discovered she did not have a washing machine until the oldest one was ten. “Wow,” I gasped, “Moms today must look spoiled to you.”

“Oh, we all just try our best,” said Margaret. Joy was written all over her face; smile lines curving upward toward her sharp, sparkling eyes. A sense of relief washed over me… it’s possible to survive this stage of life and become a joyful person.

The more kids I have, the less impressed I am with myself. My patience, love, j oy, hope and humility are tested and I fail miserably. I am disgusted with the behavior I regularly exhibit. I’m rude to my toddler, abrasive to my preschooler and short with my husband. Some days I feel I should preface every conversation with an apology,

I don’t know why it is so easy to be cynical and pessimistic. On paper, my life must look enviable: loyal husband, decent house, t wo rough-and-tumble little boys and a smiley baby girl, local family who helps out, kind friends. And, I have a growing relationship with a living God. But joy comes laboriously.

We live in a violent, sinful world. I’m scared and worried. It shows on my face, the lines developing are furrows and frowns, not smile lines, like Margaret’s. Paul wrote to the Philippians (2:14-15), “Do everything without complaining or arguing so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation in which you shine like stars in the universe.”

I know God is bigger than the depravity of humankind. I know the heaven that awaits us is amazing, perfect and complete, without the brokenness, t he damage, t he dissension sin causes. I wish I could establish that as a platform for my joy, but my habit is to slide into bitter sarcasm.

Margaret didn’t. She quite literally “shone.” Not in the Hallmarky, beauty pageant sense of the word, but deep and peaceful, like a river of grace. I am hoping that Jesus can develop a fragment of that grace in me, so I am trying to smile, t o laugh more, to let that which irritates me melt away.

Praying for grace is dangerous, like praying for patience or humility. God gives you lots of opportunities. While out shopping recently, I paid with a credit card and the cashier asked for identification. When I handed her my driver’s license she said, “Oh, you look so fresh and young in this picture. How old were you?”

I grimaced. “That was four years ago, before I had any kids. I was twenty-seven.” And I was smiling.

Joy is a choice. I don’t want my kids to inherit my fear. The joy of the Lord is, will be, must be my strength, so I am going to smile until I have lines of joy tattooed on my face. And in forty years, maybe I’ll look like Margaret.