Not alone

My oldest son was diagnosed with autism on Tuesday.

I don’t quite know what to do with the diagnosis yet. It sits in my chest like a stone, hard, heavy, painful.

He’s been under the neuro-developmental team for 18 months, and we’ve known for at least three years that there was something going on. We’d kind of wrapped our heads around it being ADD, and felt he had some autistic traits, but because he’s doing so well academically, I suppose we had ruled out a diagnosis of autism.

And I’ve realised that I’m the kind of person that holds onto hope, however unlikely it seems. I want to believe the best, I want things to work out, sometimes to the point where I won’t accept the obvious fact that something isn’t working out.

I mean, when your 11 year old is rolling round on the living room floor, crying and screaming because you’ve told him he can’t have any more X-box, you’d think it would be obvious that something was not quite right.

Still, it’s hard to accept. He’s my son. I want the best for him. I want a happy, simple life for him, with a good job, marriage, kids.

Suddenly all those things are looking less likely, perhaps even less possible.

So I’ve come back to this blog (after a looong break) to try to process it all. I suppose I’m aware that lots of other mums are going through the same thing, and will go through it in the future. By putting my journey of acceptance out there, then perhaps I’ll help someone else.

After the meeting with the consultant, after driving my son home and picking my other kids up, and cooking tea … my first big concern was how autism would affect my son’s acceptance of Jesus and the gospel.

We’ve already encountered some problems. I mean, he has a really hard time accepting that he might be wrong, so wrapping his head around personal sinfulness might be hard. He seems to struggle to engage with the church service (we go to a more charismatic-leaning church at the moment, so emotions are high on the agenda) … he doesn’t like to sing, and just wants to draw Sonic the Hedgehog through the sermon. He also checks out during our family worship times, or cracks silly jokes and distracts his brother and sister.

Can he even become a Christian, I feared. The obstacles just seem too high for him.

Almost immediately I felt the reassurance of God. Nothing is too hard for Jesus. He has defeated death, sin, hell, Satan. Autism is no obstacle to him.

Jesus can save my son. It’s a spiritual work, not mental or emotional (though of course the Holy Spirit will transform those things as he works). And maybe my son will always struggle with aspects of church and spirituality. But Jesus has a special place in his heart for the broken, the weak.

So my first fear was laid to rest.

 

My heart for you, if you are a fellow mother, struggling to accept your child’s future, is for you to press closer to Jesus. He is so strong, so good, so kind. I know it might not feel that way right now. But he is. He will sit with you while you weep; he’ll weep with you in fact. He knows this world is not the way it should be. You are not alone.

 

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Boredom Bingo

One of the things I’m attempting at the moment is to work out the major stresses in our family, and then to try to implement solutions. I’m finding that often the problems are more to do with my attitudes than anything else … however I did work out that my son repeatedly asking for screen-time was a major stress on me.

I’ve always been a bit leery of screens. They seem to me to be the equivalent of fast-food for the brain. Growing up, we only had two channels and they only showed kids TV for two hours a day. So at most I’d watch an hour of TV a day, and an occasional film. I was quite happy writing, drawing, and playing with toys or friends.

Son#1 however, absolutely loves screens. This seems to be characteristic of ADHD – after all, exciting TV and video games require little effort in terms of concentration, and can provide a lot of the stimulation people with ADHD crave.

So I understand the magnetic attraction my son feels for screens. What I find really hard to cope with is his apparent inability to entertain himself without a screen.

During the school holidays and weekends he follows me around asking for more X-box, TV, or games on the kindle. He disputes the rules we had clearly established about screen time during the holidays. He is relentless in this, and as an introvert I find his constant demands for attention and screens exhausting. So we have come up with Boredom Bingo!

112 Jonathan's castle

I wrote out a long list of activities that are alternatives to screens. I was careful to involve activities that require Son#1 to think of someone else’s needs and preferences, not just his own – so one is ‘plan a day out for your little sister’, and another is ‘make a card for someone who needs cheering up’. I also wanted him to have some activities that were chores, like putting away toys.

20161001_102638The idea is that any time he feels bored, or when it is not screen time, instead of asking me for screens he can pick an activity off the boredom bingo sheet. When he completes the sheet he gets a small prize (like a bar of chocolate – nothing too expensive!) I’ve put sixteen activities on one sheet, so it should take him at least a week to complete it. He gets the immediate reward of ticking off the activity (or you could offer stickers to a younger child); and the incentive of the reward at the end of the sheet. He also gets the reward of feeling that he has achieved something.

And hopefully, I’ll get a break from the arguments over screen time!

Here’s the link to the pdf if you want to steal the idea for your own family 🙂

boredom bingo

Thoughts from the pit

I had such a strong vision of how our family was going to be. Thirteen years ago when I said, “I do”, I thought we would have a tribe of happy children, gathered peacefully around the table. With Christmas coming, my vision turns to games played around the fire, stories shared with food, children listening as we whisper the reason for the lights and presents, the joy that we have a Saviour.

I know now that this was an ideal, even in ordinary families. The peace is disrupted by sin, selfishness, illness, and tiredness. Those moments of peace and joy, when they come, are precious.

I think the past ten years have been God slowly prying my fingers loose from my vision. I cling on tightly, because this is what we have been taught to want. Peace, happiness, gently glowing fairy lights and thankful faces.

I think God has a different vision. And now that we have accepted that our oldest son actually has some pretty deep issues, I’ve been working through a process of mourning my vision, and learning to accept and live in what God, in his wisdom, has given instead.

God’s vision is one of self-sacrifice, where we learn to make space for other peoples’ difficulties and differences. It hurts. It means that maybe our family worship times have to be short, snappy, fun, rather than slow, deep and thoughtful. But you know what, that’s where my husband excels. So maybe God’s vision is also one where I learn to let go of control a bit more.

God’s vision is one of forgiveness, where we walk the hard road of saying, “You hurt me, but I’ll accept the pain of that rather than break our relationship”. We are walking with him in this, following the footsteps of Jesus.

God’s vision is one of love, where we show kindness when we are reviled, patience when faced with ingratitude, and persistent generosity when our efforts go unrecognised. We could not learn these things so well if life was always easy, if our children were always obedient and thankful.

If I have learned one thing in this life it is that the harder road is always the better one, though it may hurt. The best things of God are those won through pain, through trial. Just as the best views are found at the top of a rugged mountain path, the greatest love is found through sacrifice.

God knew this. It’s why he allowed sin into the world. It’s why he sent his Son to live here, instead of remaining in perfect peace and joy in heaven. It’s why he allowed us to crucify his deeply loved Son, so that the whole Trinity could enter our brokenness and love to the fullest measure.

God seeks to draw us up into his higher life, his life of sacrificial love, his life of forgiveness and mercy. Will I still fight him? Or will I embrace the opportunities he has given me to experience deeper love, deeper forgiveness, deeper grace?

Running Joy

I must start with a disclaimer. I don’t run. I am bad at it. I imagine I look like a string puppet from behind. Apparently my feet don’t pace evenly but randomly, like a penguin. Or so my loving husband tells me.

However, in my days of yore I took part in cross country races. (I always came last. Long-legged boys from older classes would leap past me, gazelle-like, splattering me with mud as I picked my way around the bogs, trying to avoid wet feet.) Follow the path at your feet

I like the idea of running; but I’m just not good at it. And I’m ok with that. I enjoy other sports instead like badminton and the school run.

So why am I writing about running?

I know this blog is about joy but bear with me for a few paragraphs. I’m kind of in a boggy place right now, in terms of joy and spiritual life. I suppose it reminded me of those old cross country runs, slogging along wet gravel paths, trying to find the least slippery way through the mud, that feeling of not enough air, of pushing your legs to take one more step. One more step. One more step.

I haven’t slept through the night for nine months now. BabyGirl sleeps. But I lie awake, trying not to think about irony, or how I’m going to survive the next day, and how much damage I’m doing to my children my being grumpy and exhausted all the time.

It’s a slog. Reading the Bible is painful. Praying just ends up in a vague mess of tears and pleas for help which so often seem to go unanswered.

And it struck me that when the Apostle Paul described life as a race, he meant a marathon, not a sprint. There are times when your frozen legs feel like lead, the wind is in your face, hail is stinging your cheeks and other runners are passing you. It feels like you’re not going to make it. You’re wondering why you entered this race in the first place.

I’m tired. I’m irritable. I’m angry with myself for letting my short temper and impatience get the better of me again and again. I’m frustrated that I cannot hold onto God more firmly, or make more room for the Holy Spirit to work in me, or let the life of Jesus into my home through me.

Where is my joy? I’ll be honest … right now, it’s a damp little flicker that seems to be failing against the dark.

I know I’m not the only one. Which is why I’m being open about it. This blog is about joy, but I always wanted it to be clear that there is joy for the hard days as well as the days when the sun shines and running is all downhill. In fact, there is joy especially for those days.

There is joy in knowing I’m flexing spiritual muscles, even though it hurts. I’m learning to give myself up for my children, to be more humble, more sacrificial, more like my wonderful Jesus. It’s tiny baby steps. But it’s progress.

There is joy in knowing that I’m loved even here, even now. Even when I’ve nagged the husband, and berated the kids, and lost my temper, and told God that he isn’t being fair, stamped my spiritual feet and told him that he’s asking too much. (To which he softly replies, “Too much?” And holds out his wounded hands).

There is joy in kneeling at the cross and reminding myself of the forgiveness that is mine. The grace that is poured on me to start again tomorrow as if today never happened.

And soon the sun will be out, and the path will be dry at my feet, and that finish line will be visible on the horizon.15 View from Garden

I’m still alive …

I’ve been rather quiet lately … the stork paid our home a visit four months ago, and our new BabyGirl has kept me very busy!

12 Pembroke
Motherhood

The arrival of a baby into a family is an occasion of both overwhelming joy and stress at the same time. My emotions have run into peaks of love and delight and valleys of despair and anxiety these past months. I have understood the meaning of God as my rock as I have so desperately needed a constant, a level surface under my feet. Emotions are like breakers, threatening to sweep me away.

In times of stress it is so easy to cling to the old lie – “things will be better when …”

I place my hope in a change in circumstances, looking forward to easier days. But this is a false hope. Easier circumstances would relieve some pressure, but our calling in this life is not to seek ease or mere happiness. We are on a quest for joy, and the Bible assures us that joy is found in service and sacrifice, and in knowing Jesus better, not in comfort or ease.

Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve. Mark 10:43-45

Prayer has been particularly hard as hormones and sleep deprivation turn my brain to cotton wool. I have found great peace in simply offering my day to the Lord at its start, determining to serve him, my husband and children, trusting him to provide the strength.

My default is to panic when I have a poor night’s sleep. My automatic thought is, “I won’t cope tomorrow”. And of course it is harder to cope with two rowdy, challenging boys and a new baby with less sleep. However, the discipline of pausing that thought and reminding myself that my loving Father has provided me with the right amount of sleep, and that he will provide me with the grace to cope, has brought great peace and blessing.

It is a discipline, though, and many days I fail.

What are you struggling with at the moment? Are you waiting for comfort and ease? May I encourage you instead to look to Jesus for your strength and joy, and to determine to trust him to provide for you what you need for today, to do the work he has given you to do.

Motherhood … a privilege?

There is a trend at the moment to be really ‘honest’ as a parent. What this means is, we talk about how hard and horrible it is to be a parent and how annoying children can be, and call it being candid or brave.

There is a tendancy to view children as an interruption, their demanding baby stage as something ‘to be got through’, and we make every effort to minimise the disruption children bring to adult life by using nurseries, nannies, and doing everything we can to get our babies to sleep so that we can go back to ‘normal life’ as quickly as possible.

'Helping'
‘Helping’

While I find it helpful sometimes to talk with other parents and realise that I am not the only one who struggles with my temper, whose kids won’t put their shoes on when asked and interrupt conversations … I feel we are looking at only one side of the coin.

I talked to my mum about this the other day. She had a really good career in the civil service before I came along. She was gradually being promoted up the ranks, and when she fell pregnant actually had the higher wage out of my parents. In modern terms, it made no sense for her to give up work and stay home.

But that’s what she did. She gave up her career, a comfortable wage, and her independence, and stayed at home full time. I asked her if she ever regretted it, or missed working. I expected some wistfulness perhaps, or some words about being glad to give it up because she knew it was the right thing.

“Not at all,” she said. “I loved being at home.”

That’s all very well, a modern mum might argue. If someone loves being at home then great, that’s lovely for her and for her children. But not for me – I need to work, I need more than just caring for children.

But my mum didn’t stop there. She explained why she loved giving up a good career and staying at home full time with disobedient, frustrating kids (and believe me, I could be frustrating – I refused to go to sleep alone until I was well over three, and I would not wear wrinkled socks – my shoes had to be taken off and on until there were no wrinkles at all).

“Being a mother is an honour,” she exclaimed with passion. “These children have been entrusted to you. It’s a great blessing to be there to raise them and teach them.”

Wow. I don’t think anyone has ever said that to me in almost seven years of parenting. People have said how hard it is, how demanding, how it sucks the life out of you and leaves you with stretch-marks, bags under your eyes, and nothing resembling a life.

No one ever called it an honour. A privilege. A blessing.

My mum did a great deal that day to restore my sense of mission in motherhood. Before I had kids I wanted to be a good parent. I saw children as a blessing. But somehow over the years, the lack of sleep and our children’s resistance to love and discipline, not to mention the negative comments in the media and from other people, all ground me down until I wearily resigned myself to another fifteen years or so of not doing the things I loved, and perhaps working at a low-grade job for a few hours a week so that we could afford to pay for a holiday abroad, or university fees.

Amazing what a few words can do. I fully acknowledge that motherhood can feel like drudgery. It is hard work. It demands more than I feel I can give most days.

But I remind myself that I am honoured to bring new life into this world. I feel that more than ever right now as my little girl moves within me. Yes, pregnancy comes with pain and nausea and discomfort but also incredible blessing. I get to give life to someone. To three Someones, with souls and personality and potential to bring great joy into this world.

I remind myself that I am privileged to be one of the most significant people in the life of three human beings. It is my words that will guide my children to success or failure, to good character or weakness. It is my hands that will teach them kindness and love. It is my arms that will embrace them, my belief that will inspire them, my faith that will encourage them.

I remind myself that children are a blessing. They are a gift, not a right. There are thousands of women who would give anything to be woken tonight by the cries of a newborn, but who will sleep soundly because their womb remains empty, or because their baby never came home.

The needs and demands of my children, their mess, their disorganisation, their interruptions – these are blessings too. They have taught me more love and patience than I would ever have otherwise learned. I am so far from perfect but my children have also taught me about forgiveness. I can scream at them in the morning because they have not put their shoes on despite being asked seven times … yet at three o’ clock my son runs out to hug me as if I was the best person in the whole world.

And to him, for now, I am. To him I am the most beautiful woman, the best cook, the best mummy in the world. I’ll take that award.

46 Bute Park Zach took this

So although I think it is helpful to acknowledge that motherhood is hard (in fact, soul-achingly painful at times) … let’s also remember that we are honoured, privileged, blessed. Yes, immense self-sacrifice is involved, but that is our gift to give. Our love, our advice, our support will make a world of difference to the next generation. Let us rise to the challenge and not be afraid.

Good for all the wrong reasons

Last night we ate TV in front of a film. We don’t often do this as a family, but it was late and I’d had an exhausting day. Bedtime came, the film wasn’t finished, but Daddy turned it off anyway as it was bathtime.

“NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

This is not my four-year-old. This is my oldest son, soon to be seven.

He wants to finish the film (though we’d warned him it wasn’t likely to happen at the start).

He wants more to eat.

He doesn’t want a bath.

His angry protests used to shock me, baffle me, send me running to my parenting books full of anxiety about spectrums and syndromes. I’d dredge google for the one article which would explain how to stop my son from rebelling against every single directive we gave him (from ‘brush your teeth now’ to ‘don’t hit mummy’).

Now my husband and I just exchange weary glances. Whose turn is it to field this new ten minute battle to get our son to comply?

Then son#2 pipes up.

“Ok, Daddy,” he says, as virtuously as a four-year-old covered in ice cream and sprinkles can.

At one level, I hear trumpets and angels singing.

Obedience! Compliance! Eagerness to please! This is what I expected in a small child (with pockets of rebellion). Not one long war since the age of 2.

So why does son#2’s response fill me with unease?

I think it’s because, about thirty seconds later (punctuated with machine-gun fired ‘no’s from son#1) he said, “I’m not shouting, Mummy. I said ‘ok’.”

My son is being good. I should be pleased. I am pleased.

But he is being good for all the wrong reasons.

 * * * * *

We have sneaky, deceitful hearts. Those of us who cling to the notion that there is good in everyone just waiting to be tickled delightfully to life need a reality check.

I know just from looking at myself that my heart is like a giant pit. Light falls into the top and it looks ok. A bit dusty, a bit cluttered, but nothing too nasty. When I dare to delve deeper I find corners as black as pitch, and like tangled necklaces I find, with my love of helping people, other desires, like wanting to look good, a craving for praise and adulation, and just basic selfishness. Our motives are so mixed it can be hard to separate the good from the bad.

It was the Pharisees, who did all the right things, that Jesus opposed far more than the prostitutes and swindlers who came to him for help.

if I give my body to be burned, but have not love, I am nothing

Son#1’s sin is obvious. It is in-your-face, bare-faced rebellion.

Son#2 is outwardly a fairly good child. He is mischievous sometimes but his worst faults, at the moment, are mostly passive – forgetfulness, carelessness, impulsiveness. But self-righteousness?

These are big words. Hard to use on a four-year-old. In truth, his sins are seedlings, in their infancy. If I am able to train him conscientiously, many will not grow to a great height and he may learn to do good instead of evil.

But I want him to do good for the right reasons. I want him to seek to please God, not people, not even me and my husband. I want him to do good for love of goodness itself, not for selfish reasons.

* * * * *

This cultivating of little souls leaves me often overwhelmed, often out of my depth, often clutching for those certainties I thought I had before the reality of life with children swept all my parenting ideals out to sea.

But it also reveals much deeper truth and joy than I ever imagined. It reveals my own soul to me. I am both my children in my relationship to my Father.

I rebel. I scream ‘no!’ in the heavenly face. I pummel with my puny fists against the everlasting arms and I tantrum when the will of God dares to go against mine.

But I also have days when I manage, somehow, to do something good and then immediately I am tugging on my Father’s sleeve. “See? Look what I did!”

And more often than not it is like the time my children called me out into the garden to see their ‘work’. With beaming faces they showed me a pit of sodden mud, grass and stones which they had created.

They had forgotten that stones are not to be mixed in the flower bed, and that they must not play with the outside tap. They conveniently overlooked the black mud caked on their shoes, streaking their clothes, oozing between their fingers and smeared all over their faces. They honestly expected me to be overflowing with admiration.

We all walk this tightrope between willfulness and self-righteousness.

It is the cross which keeps us balanced. I look at Jesus and find forgiveness for all my rebellion, hope that I might learn submission like his which says ‘not my will but yours’.

I look at Jesus and cannot possibly hold onto pride. However much good I do it will always be mud-smeared and mixed with selfishness compared to his pure, burning love and utter self-sacrifice.

So I try, on my best days, to stop picking at my children’s outward behaviour. I try to take their gaze off themselves, and turn them to him. I try to do the same myself.