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

A Study in Fear

Well, it’s hardly the most propitious start to the year but Son#2 spent most of yesterday with his head in the sick bucket, and I have spent today bleaching everything in sight, trying to prevent the rest of us from going down with what I can only assume is my great nemesis, the Norovirus.

I want to testify to the great and tender mercy of God. He remembers that we are dust, and has sent many kindnesses our way during this trial.

But he has been challenging me. Stretching me.

Today 60 years have passed since Jim Elliot and his companions were killed by the Huaorani they were trying to reach with the gospel. Such a willingness to surrender everything to Jesus by a young man with a wife and small daughter makes me ashamed of my petty fear of a day of discomfort.

I know the theory. I know that it is only one day, and that if I catch the norovirus it is only for good, even if I can’t see the good.

But all my feelings are in rebellion and I have spent the day like Jacob, wrestling with the God I think I know. He is good. He is merciful. But he is also wiser and greater than me, and can see further, to the ends of eternity and back. This is comfort.

But it is also terrifying. It puts someone other than me in control, and even believing that he is good and loving … I am fighting with myself, fighting to reach that place of surrender where I can let go, empty my hands and take whatever God sends with thankfulness and trust.

This fear goes deep. Its roots run right into my soul, where I cling tightly to the sense that I have some power, some control over my circumstances. But the only thing that God wishes me to control is myself.

It was very helpful to me to realise that Jesus’ command is not, ‘Do not feel afraid’, but ‘Do not be afraid’. He experienced the depths of fear in Gethsemane. He knows that gripping terror which turns the bones to water and makes every heartbeat last forever. He knows the urge to run, the hissing instinct of self-preservation. He felt fear at its strongest.

But he did not run. He did not allow fear to control him; rather he mastered it and walked calmly away with the soldiers to be tortured and killed.

I am fighting with my demons today. I feel profoundly afraid, but, with God’s help I will not be afraid. I will comfort my sick son when I want to run. I will wrestle until the truth that God loves me, and will send only good, comforts my soul. I will try to follow my Lord, and master my fear.

Fear cages me. Sometimes I like my cage. It makes me feel safe. I willingly open the door and step inside, thinking that the cage will keep me from harm. But in fact it traps me.

Faith melts the bars of iron and throws my horizons wide. Because anything is possible with this God. Moving mountains. Walking on water. Even coping with Norovirus.

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.

Here is love

Our culture has many false assumptions about love.

Very often what we mean by ‘love’ is warm feelings towards another person.

Being ‘in love’ means that a person makes us feel excited, happy, tingly, aroused.

Both these definitions are very self-centred. They focus on Me and My Feelings.

 * * * *

Love in the Bible is an action. To quote Massive Attack, ‘love, love is a verb, love is a doing word’.

To quote a slightly more famous person,

‘Greater love has no one than this: that he lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15:13).

This means that love, real love, involves sacrifice. It involves putting Me and My Feelings aside, and putting the interests of others ahead of my own.

It also means that those we do this for are our friends, not those we especially like, or enjoy the company of most.

 * * * * *

More astoundingly, it means that the Person who said this considers us friends, because he laid down his life for us.

This is the essence of Easter. Jesus did not consider his own comfort, his own happiness, even his own life to be more important than our need. He did not rationalise, or draw a line in the sand, ‘this far and no further’. His love is radical, the right kind of extremism.

He held back nothing.

 * * * * *

We are meant to be moved by this. We are meant to consider his strength, his determination, his courage, his selflessness … and worship.

 * * * * *

We are also meant to reflect on ourselves. How often do I love like this? Even my own husband? Even my own children?

How often am I drawing lines in the sand, hoarding my reserves, trying desperately to cling onto my own life and happiness and comfort, instead of pouring it all out for the good and happiness of others?

Whoever wants to save their life will lose it.

But whoever gives their life for me will find it.

(Luke 9:24)

Guilt-free Parenting (4) – what does it look like?

This blog entry has been written and reworked about ten times this week. I’m really struggling to expand on what I mean by ‘what is the most loving thing?’

You’d think it would be obvious, but in my personal experience, and in observing other parents first hand (and on forums and other blogs) I have come to see that our motives as parents are often veiled, even to ourselves. We can think we are loving our children, when we are not.

I think the best way I can do this is to offer examples from my own parenting experience to illustrate what I mean. What I don’t want is for anyone to feel I am judging them for their parenting decisions – I recognise that for most of us, parenting is done in survival mode, and often our decisions are born out of sheer desperation!

When I first became a parent I was determined to be the best parent I could be. This, I think, is probably what most of us aim for. No one cradles their first child and thinks, “Well, now my life has changed. I’m going to be a safely average parent.”

However, speaking personally at least, my motive included a hefty dose of pride. I didn’t see this at the time. I thought I just wanted what was best for my baby (and I did, but this was at least equally matched by pride). The pride was first in my belief in my ability to be the perfect parent (I had no idea that tiredness and the nature of children would reveal a new level of impatience and selfishness in myself); and secondly in my desire to be the perfect parent. I wanted to be admired and looked up to as a good mum. I wanted my children to be glad they had me; my husband to see what a great mother I was; and I wanted other people to ask me for advice because I had such lovely, well-behaved, securely attached children.

Oh I’m blushing now. Such honesty has come through years of falling again and again to my quick temper, my impatience, and just basic selfishness that doesn’t want to play cars or talk about lego spaceships, but wants to check facebook for the tenth time this morning (or just finish a cup of coffee without having to get up to wipe someone’s backside, for pete’s sake!)

Looking back, many of my choices were a mixture of pride and love. I did genuinely want the best for my babies, and still do, but mixed in with that is that pride at being a ‘good parent’, and also a desire for my own fulfilment.

What I mean is that I believed having children would bring me fulfilment, and make my life complete. (If you read a bit of my blog you’ll understand that a strong driving force in my life has been a desire for ‘life to the full’). What I believed would fulfil me was being the best parent ever. This led to a skewed decision making process, where I put the interests of my baby above my husband, and my own physical and mental health. That’s what a good mother does, I thought, and I was determined to be a good mother. It also led to a great deal of disillusionment as my children, far from fulfilling me, drained me of all energy and happiness and left me an exhausted, gibbering shell.

One way I thought I was being loving was because I couldn’t bear to leave my sons to cry. I had read all the blogs and books which labelled ‘crying it out’ as cruel. How could I leave my helpless baby to cry alone in the dark? All he wanted was his mummy. But I was exhausted and unable to function because of sleep-deprivation.

Now, there is a huge difference between a baby under three months of age, who is still learning to trust his caregiver and who is still disorganised in their sleep rhythm, and a baby of six months and older, who usually is getting enough nutrition during the day to no longer need milk at night, but who also now is securely attached to their parents and knows their needs will be met. There is also a huge difference between the child who is very anxious and needs a great deal of reassurance and close contact with his parents, and the baby who has just become used to a habit of falling asleep that is now disruptive to the family.

Let me explain – my two sons were bad at falling to sleep. Neither of them would willingly just lie there, close their eyes and drop off. Those cute pictures of babies who have fallen asleep in their high chairs are a mystery to me. My boys fought sleep. The only time they fell asleep without protest was in the pram or car. (And yes, we tried swaddling, dummies, patting, picking up and putting them down. In fact we could probably write a book of ideas to try to get your baby to sleep.)

With my eldest we got into the habit of rocking him to sleep. We had read the books and knew it was a rod for our backs in the making, but there was no other way he’d sleep when he was tiny. It’s time together, I tried to tell myself, bouncing around in a darkened room at 8 p.m. … though all I really wanted was to sit down on the sofa and not move for two hours. However, when he got to nine months old and woke every night at 2, 3 and 5 a.m. to be rocked back to sleep, and when he got too heavy for me to do it (we had been taking shifts) my husband put his foot down. (Did I mention that the rocking had to be done standing up? If we sat down our son would scream blue murder).

Basically, we were held hostage by a nine month old baby.

Again, looking back, my motives were mixed, but had a great deal of selfishness in them. I couldn’t bear to leave my baby to cry – the reason was partly because I feared we were refusing a need for comfort, but also a great deal of it was because I was protecting myself. I didn’t want to feel upset because he was crying.

Again, I want to stress that there is a huge difference between the crying of a four-month old baby, for example, and a nine-month old. My son was waking because he wanted to be rocked, not because he needed us. We realised this because he would quite happily settle if we rocked him in his car seat and not in our arms. It was the motion he wanted, not reassurance or physical comfort.

And his want (not need) was making us exhausted, irritable, and resentful.

Having left him to cry himself to sleep for a few nights, I realised that this had been a good decision. We all needed a good night’s sleep, our son included. He just needed to realise that it was possible to fall asleep without being rocked. His cries (which lasted 40 minutes the first night, 30 the second, and then gradually tailed off until he would moan for about ten minutes each night) were an angry protest, not distress. I should also add that my husband would go in to check him every ten minutes or so, until we realised that this was actually upsetting our boy more. He settled more quickly and with less crying if we just left him to it (listening out for that hysterical, I need you cry).

The joy of the ‘loving’ principle is that it will look differently with each family. The key is knowing your child, and knowing yourself. If my child is anxious and needy (some babies just are) then it would not be loving to leave them to cry at any age. If my child is demanding and whiny then it is loving to teach them that they are not the centre of the universe. Asking ‘what is the most loving thing’ balances the needs of each family member, and allows parents to decide for themselves which ‘wants’ of their child they are able to allow, and which they must lovingly decline.

To give another example (if you’ve read enough please just skip to my summary at the end), a child may want to sleep in their parents’ bed, but it is not always loving to give in.

I had planned on allowing our children into our bed, but once I realised this involved being repeatedly elbowed and kneed in the back, not to mention having my pillow stolen and being forced right to the edge of my bed because my son hates feeling ‘squashed’ (by which he means having any part of his body in contact with another human body) we quickly returned him to his own bed. We were all much happier that way, and occasionally, if he can lie still and enjoy being close to us, he is allowed to cuddle in bed in the mornings (if his parents are already about half awake and it is nearly time to get up).

Lastly, asking ‘what is the most loving thing’ has really helped me as my children grew older. A small baby has very basic (albeit very intense) needs – food, sleep, and security. In the long run, many of the decisions we agonise over actually make very little difference to their developing into healthy, happy adults. However, as the child develops and grows, how we relate to them and the choices we make have increasing weight in their lives. I realised recently with my two boys that their ‘love’ needs are very different. My second son, age four, is very easy for me to love. His primary need seems to be for cuddles, and as long as I am available for a quick hug and kiss at frequent intervals, he is very happy to play by himself. I love giving hugs and kisses, so our personalities meet very well.

My older son … he is another kettle of fish altogether. He has never been cuddly, pushing me away from a very young age when I tried to offer physical affection. Cuddles are asked for always on his terms, and they are usually very intense, brief, and sometimes silly. What he loves is when I play with him, talk to him, and just generally do stuff with him. I find this form of love very hard to give. I am an introvert – I love my own headspace, and my oldest son loves to invade. He will ask a thousand questions in an hour. He will tell me all about the picture he drew, the lego model he built, and while I try to be affirming and positive, some days my heart sinks. Some days, I can barely talk by the time my husband comes home, my resources have been so drained.

I am very slowly learning how to work out the most loving thing in each situation. Usually, the most loving thing is for me to set aside whatever I am engrossed in, and give my son at least half my attention. I am very bad at doing this, especially when I am tired. But, I have learned, sometimes the most loving thing is to explain to my son, kindly but firmly, that mummy is tired now and needs to stop talking, and that he must think of mummy and go and play quietly in another room (or find his brother and talk to him).

 * * * * *

A quick summary, because I being concise is not one of my strong points and you may have got lost in my ramblings:

This question, ‘what is the most loving thing?’ does three key things for us as parents.

  • It clarifies my motives. Had I asked this question when my son was waking us through the night, I would have made the same decision as a young parent to leave my son to cry, but it would have been for very different reasons. As a result, I would have had far more confidence in the decision. It would still have been hard to hear my son crying the first few nights, but I would not have been wracked by guilt for months afterwards. In fact, we probably would not have got to that point of extreme exhaustion in the first place.
  • It reduces the issues involved to one basic question – the question I asked in the first blog entry of this series – is my child loved and feeling secure today? If I can say ‘yes’, then I am making good decisions. If I am not sure, then perhaps I need to reassess and ask again, ‘what is the most loving thing’?
  • It keeps us from swinging to the extremes of parenting – either making myself the centre of all decisions and putting my child’s needs second; or putting my child at the centre of all decisions, and thus making everyone else’s needs secondary, including my own. Neither is healthy for the parents or the child. Instead, a balance is needed, where parents make sacrifices so that their child grows up loved and nurtured, but also where a child learns that the universe does not revolve around them, and that they exist to serve as well as be served.

Ultimately, going back to the whole point of this series, this question releases us from the guilt we so often feel as parents.

It frees me from the need to judge others who have decided differently from me (so I am not sitting in disapproval when my friends choose to return to work and employ a child-minder – I trust them to make loving decisions about their own family, knowing themselves and their own children).

And when, as happened recently, someone declares to my face that my choice to stay at home full time is the ‘lazy’ option, I may laugh (and then blush as I realise they are serious), and I may feel bewildered and a little angry (really? You think this is the easy option?), but ultimately I am not bothered. Because I know they are wrong. I have not made this decision out of laziness. Perhaps, as I’ve said above, my original motivations were not purely selfless or loving, but now, knowing the daily grind and exhaustion of being a full-time mum, I am still choosing it. My husband and I have looked at the options and concluded together that this is the most loving thing for our boys at the moment. And quite honestly, the longer I do it the more I realise it is the right option for me too.

My life is lived to the full as I learn to love.