Every mom needs a stand-in

Last weekend, my family and I drove up to Utah to visit with some family members and friends, among them two sisters and a nephew. We got to hang out with them and just have fun. The girls really enjoy spending time with their family members. We spent the most time, about three solid days all together, with my oldest nephew, whom we only get to see maybe once a year. He’s a fun guy. My third daughter has been a huge fan of his since she was about six years old. Now she’s ten and she adores him more than ever; I think she could sew herself to him permanently and be completely happy.

For a whole weekend, Cami was rarely apart from her oldest cousin.

The lovely thing about this situation isn’t just that it’s really cute and sweet to see them together; it warms my heart. But an added bonus is that I get a reprieve for a while from being the one person that my children glom onto. We have about 2200 square feet in our house, and five whole bedrooms. Each daughter gets her own room. But if I’m in the kitchen, all the children surround me there. If I’m in my bedroom or even the master bathroom, the children are swarming me there. If I sit down on the couch, at least three people set their little bottoms down on the couch too. The whole rest of the house becomes wasted space, because we’re inhabiting about 12 square feet. I often feel as if I’m encircled by a swarm of gnats much like those that beleaguered me as a child in muggy summertime Pennsylvania.

Don’t get me wrong: I love my girls. I love hugs and kisses and talking to them and listening to the cute and smart things they say. They awe me. But sometimes every person, including a mother, needs some quiet time, some personal space. Children aren’t very adept at respecting personal space.

This is where it’s fun to see someone else being swarmed by my cute little gnats. Over the weekend, it was my nephew. The second he walked in the door, they all zoomed to his immediate vicinity and cried out in one loud, enthusiastic chorus: “Craig!!!” They glommed onto him like flies to sticky paper. At mealtimes, they all wanted to sit next to him. I became a distant memory. It was wonderful to watch and it was wonderful to all of a sudden have some personal space. It was magic.

Every mom needs a Cousin Craig, someone their kids will flock to, someone they adore and will follow around. I just wish my nephew were closer. I could use some personal space more often than once a year. Thanks for being my stand-in!

I’m no superwoman

I always have a mixture of feelings and reactions when someone else refers to me as a superwoman or supermom. First, to be honest, I’m a bit pleased. I mean, who wouldn’t be when called super? It’s a compliment. It’s an affirmation that all that I try to do for myself and my family is recognized and appreciated. And in a tough, unrelentingly demanding job like mothering, there’s just never enough appreciation along the way.

Plus, I’m a bit of an overachiever. I won most of the academic awards I could possibly win throughout my school years and was valedictorian. I had my academic career pretty well mapped out, and I got the full-tuition scholarship I wanted to the university I’d wanted to attend for practically my whole life. I even got the best internship in my field that I could get. I got a job out of college. I suppose it wouldn’t be wrong to say I had been accustomed to being rewarded and recognized for the hard work I did for a long time.

That is, until I got married and started having children. I decided to be a stay-at-home mom, and I haven’t worked outside the home full time for about 17 years. The overachiever part of me has been starved. The accolades have shriveled up, and I have found myself seeking some kind of positive feedback for what I’ve been doing, which has been much more difficult than any academic work I ever decided to undertake.

So, yeah, my starving little inner overachiever has gobbled up any little morsel of recognition, any kind comments. So if someone says I’m a superwoman, I enjoy it a bit.

But I have to admit that it comes with a price. First, I have to have a week like this: sew four items of clothing, fix homemade breakfasts and dinners for my family, wash seven loads of laundry, shop, help my husband lay tile in the master bathroom, get my high schooler signed up for an online summer class so she can take art in the fall (since she’s unbelievably talented at it), make phone calls for the band booster club (since I’m secretary), play piano at church, tell the newspaper daily editor about a great photo opportunity at our church’s area youth activity (since I volunteer in public affairs), plan for a family vacation, plan a new-student gathering for my university’s local alumni chapter (since I’m the chair of the chapter), get the paperwork together to refinance our house (since I’m the family financial planner), do some editing work, and keep my book review website and blog updated.

Pant, pant. Whew!

Yep, my superwoman status takes its toll. First, I’m exhausted and sometimes at the end of my rope. Second, I end up losing a grip on a few things, such as my memory. (What was I writing about?…) The worst thing, I think, that I’ve lost hold of these past 9 months or so is my health. I love to exercise, and I go to the gym every day. But I also like to bake, and eat. Unfortunately, when I’m stressed (super-stressed, shall we say?), I tend to eat. And eat. Not carrots or celery, of course, but junk food. Ice cream, cookies, cake. The problem that has now developed is that I’ve gained about 30 pounds in the past year, pounds I worked hard to take off a few years ago after another year of super-super-stress. I no longer can wear the cute size-8 dresses that have been exiled to boxes at the top of my closet; I wear size-16 pants and size-14 dresses. It’s super-depressing.

Those are kind of obvious things. Another side effect of being a superwoman that I and others don’t often think about is that people expect it from me. They expect me to continue doing the things I already do — AND they expect I can just add in MORE things! If I can do all this, I can apparently just do more and more and more, ad infinitum. I come across as endlessly capable and a bottomless pit of energy and ability. The problem with this, obviously, is that I am NOT endlessly capable, and my energies are most definitely limited. Others don’t see the price that comes from my superwomanhood, but I do. My family does. What I want when I get this ridiculously busy and overwhelmed is for others to stop asking me to do things. But what happens instead is that others CONTINUE to ask me to do MORE. Logically, it makes no sense in a way to ask people who are really busy to do more.

What I’d like to do right now, in the middle of a superhuman year, is to retire like Superman did in the second movie. He fell in love with Lois Lane, she knew who he really was and loved him back, and he decided to forgo his superpowers and become a regular man and be with her. Most of you will probably know how that ended up. But I certainly understand what he was looking for, a little peace and quiet and a normal life. I can’t relinquish my powers or my responsibilities, nor would I want to. But I would like for the requests to stop coming in for a while. I’d like some genuine and heartfelt affirmation of what I’ve done and a pass on doing more for a bit, until I catch my breath and catch up on my to-do lists and am able to take care of myself a bit (like lose 30 or 40 pounds for my health’s sake).

No, I’m no superwoman. I have a super family and super friends, though, and my life is mostly super. But I really am going to try to lay aside the cape for a while and enjoy what I have.

Honoring my father from afar

My dad has been dead for 2 1/2 years, which makes this my third Father’s Day without him, I guess. After this kind of time has passed, I can walk past the Father’s Day card display at the store without crying, which is nice. I don’t think I’ll ever walk past it without thinking of him, though.

Dad died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 71. It tore my heart out to lose him like that. I think about him every day and miss all kinds of different things about him. We spent a lot of time together, so not having him around is strange. That space he filled in my life, which was a pretty big one, is still empty. Nothing else and no one else has seeped in to fill in any of that gap. It’s still a hole. But, again, thanks to the passing of time, it’s a hole that generally doesn’t leave me gasping and crying about anymore. It’s one I notice and think about; the hole now reminds me of all that used to fill it. I just think about all the things we did together, all we had in common, and all we would talk about.

As a mother, I understand pretty well how my mom felt years ago when she was a stay-at-home mom to three kids. I know exactly why she had to get us out of the house sometimes to JUST BE ALONE, for crying out loud. But what’s funny now is that because she sent my dad out with us kids to give her some quiet time, I now have all kinds of great memories of spending time with Dad. In her efforts to get us out of her hair, she gave us a gift.

Dad took us all kinds of places. We never lived in any big towns, mainly rural areas, so there probably wasn’t a lot to choose from in the way of cool ready-made activities, but my dad found the seeds of treasured memories. He took us to a nature preserve we just called “the deer park,” near Penn State’s Beaver Stadium.

My dad took this picture of me and my little sister at the “deer farm” during one of our many trips there.

It was this wonderful wooded area that had a large fenced-off area within the trees that was dotted with deer. Mom would give us some supplies from our food storage, and off we’d go to stick our hands inside the fence and feed the deer some dried corn or wheat or something. We’d feel the roughness of their tongues as they licked the food right off our palms. In my memory, the area seemed quite large; walking around the whole perimeter was a long distance. There’s no telling how big it really was, but it still seems vast to me inside my head.

Dad also took us to little local museums and to parks and creeks. On one trip to a creek, he took some photos that document forever how he put my little sister’s bikini top on upside down. He took lots of photos, which he developed as slides. So we don’t have family albums; we have boxes full of slide trays. I even have good memories of sitting with our family in the quiet and dark of an evening watching the slides. I can hear the whir of the fan on the old slide projector and smell its mechanical smell as I think about it now, even.

All those rural areas gave us so many places to roam and play. We lived in Pennsylvania, where there was plenty of snow. Dad would take us sledding, steering us on our big Flexible Flyer down hills packed with snow. It was wonderful. We would also go on walks, hiking around through the woods and lanes where we lived on farms, observing and talking. He took pictures of those times, too.

Dad took this picture of me on a path near where we lived in rural Pennsylvania. I loved it there. Dad was very pleased with how this photo turned out. I like it too, except for 1) he’s not in it too and 2) my hair is hideously chopped off. Ah, well.

I could go on and on about all the memories I have of Dad, but it would take up a book, and it would probably bore you. What’s important is that I have memories to treasure. Now that he’s gone and I won’t see him for a while, I can pick those little gems out of my mind and browse them at my leisure, keeping myself company with what we had together while I wait to see him again. It’s Father’s Day today, and I remember him and honor his memory. But every single day he’s gone is just another opportunity for me to think back, to treasure those memories, and to thank him within myself for what he left behind. And Mom, thanks for making him leave the house with us.

Envying the sinners and oppressors

I was reading some scriptural passages over the weekend that really stood out to me relating to beauty and self-image. They all spoke about envy and how dangerous it is. In my church’s canon is a wonderful chapter that allows us to ask ourselves questions about how prepared we are to meet God. One poses this question: Are you “stripped of envy”? (Alma 5:29)

So I began searching for other scriptural references to envy, as it relates to individuals. At one point, a prophet told his people, “And I know that ye do walk in the pride of your hearts; and there are none save a few only who do not lift themselves up in the pride of their hearts, unto the wearing of very fine apparel, unto envying, and strifes, and malice, and persecutions, and all manner of iniquities.” (Mormon 8:36)

In Galatians 5:26, we are admonished: “Let us not be desirous of vain glory, provoking one another, envying one another.” And in 1 Peter 2:1, that prophet tells us: “Wherefore laying aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and all evil speakings.”

What struck me particularly were these references in Proverbs about who in particular we don’t want to envy: sinners and oppressors. Proverbs 3:31 exhorts: “Envy thou not the oppressor, and choose none of his ways.” Proverbs 23:17 similarly says:  “Let not thine heart envy sinners: but be thou in the fear of the Lord all the day long.”

Today, we might not be oppressed by government or worldly leadership; we’re not in bondage to other people. But we can easily be oppressed by the images and messages that are constantly bombarding us. If we allow them, those who are behind these messages can oppress us in mind and in spirit. Advertisers do all they can to make us feel bad about ourselves, mainly how we look. Cosmetics companies want us to feel bad about our skin’s youthfulness, shine and clearness; clothing manufacturers want us to feel bad about how our clothes fit, how stylish they are, what fine materials they aren’t made out of. Everyone out there wants us to feel fat and ugly in some way so we will buy their products to make ourselves look better somehow, in some way. And it’s SO easy to accept and internalize those messages and to just feel bad about ourselves. And that leads us to envy. We’re envying those who oppress us. When you think about it, isn’t that crazy? Shouldn’t we be rejecting those messages and just laughing at the absurdity of it all?

At the same time, we’re also envying those in society who are sinners. So many celebrities are held up as the icons of beauty and style. But they’re also making headlines as people who are driving drunk, committing adultery, and just plain being immodest and immoral in lots of ways. I don’t think I need to give a whole lot of details to support this statement. Just pick up a magazine or glance at celebrity news on Yahoo. The next time you wish your waistline could look like that of one of the ridiculously talentless but still ubiquitous Kardashian sisters (which is easy to do while standing in a supermarket checkout line), take a second to think about them as people and what they stand for.

Peter goes on in chapter 2 to tell us who we really are: “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. … Dearly beloved, I beseech you …, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul.”

No, we shouldn’t be like everyone else; we shouldn’t be envying our oppressors and the sinners in our society. Those of us who are faithful believers in God are a “peculiar” people, which means we’re set apart from others. We’re God’s special people, and He loves us. He doesn’t want us to envy and try to emulate those in our society who only want to hurt us and make us feel bad about ourselves. Envy starts with comparing ourselves with others, and then finding ourselves wanting, in both ways. I think the first step in stopping this cycle is not comparing. As soon as you find yourself seeing a picture (inevitably it’s some kind of image), just stop and think about where your thought processes are going. And don’t go there. Don’t compare. Don’t envy. You’ll find yourself much happier.

Electronics, little hands and church services

While this topic may potentially offend some people or make me seem like a zealot or a super-strict mom or any number of other things, I think I’d still like to approach it because I think in our world of ever-dominant electronics devices, it’s a good idea to take a step back and think carefully about how we use them, where, and when.

This weekend we had a large gathering at church, one we do about twice a year, where all the members of our church in our area came together to listen to inspirational messages. As with most of our weekly meetings, the Sunday-morning meeting included adults and all ages of young people: babies, toddlers, teens and all in between. With a gathering this large, I had occasion to glance around me during the meeting to see how the young people were occupying themselves. Two- and three-year-olds were invariably snacking on Cheerios or other bite-size goodies or looking through quiet books; six- or eight-year-olds were either sitting mostly quietly or sometimes looking at books or drawing. Teens were listening to the speakers or sometimes supervising younger siblings. And in the hands of kids of any age I saw quite a few smart phones. Little kids were playing simple games; teens might be doing the same or texting. No matter the age, bright little screens were being employed in every row.

This is for illustration purposes only; the second I was done taking the photo, she had to give up the game. (ha!)

I had a few reasons for feeling dismayed at this sight. But first, I will explain my expectations, having four daughters myself. I definitely do not expect toddlers to sit still and do nothing but listen during any kind of church meeting. Three- and four-year-olds can often sit mostly still, however, and occupy themselves with books or coloring. And any kid older than eight is usually capable of sitting still and listening to speakers without needing distractions or toys. No, they won’t necessarily get a LOT out of the meeting, but they can pick up bits and pieces of truths that are imparted over the pulpit, and they can practice sitting still and being patient during a time they may still at that age consider to be “boring.” After all, they are at the age of eight already in school and heading toward a stage where they will frequently be sitting and listening to teachers “lecture,” at least for an hour at a time.

I can also make clear that I’m not a big fan of electronics for kids. Period. I do love gadgets (see my kitchen gadgets post and my ode to my Kindle), so I’m by no means a Luddite. I think that we have some amazing technology, and it’s very helpful in its way, at the proper places and times. But I also believe that children still need fairly limited times interacting with any kind of screens, be they TVs or computers or portable devices. Young children need time to be free and have opportunities to create and imagine and use their own minds to keep busy. It’s vital for their healthy development. Giving them a gadget of some type to stay busy with just trains them to turn to electronics whenever they’re bored. I try to limit the time my kids spend watching TV or movies or using the computer or playing on the Wii or Xbox, and they don’t get to play with my iPod Touch.

Now back to the church setting. It dismays me a bit to see iPhones or other little games in the hands of small children because it’s training them to turn to electronics rather than draw or create or read. But it doesn’t bother me a great deal because I respect that for some parents, it’s one of the tools in their arsenals to keep those little ones quiet and busy during a church meeting. Even though I haven’t chosen to have my little ones play on electronics devices, I appreciate it is useful for some other parents.

What bothers me the most is seeing teens or tweens using these gadgets at church. Kids of these ages are perfectly capable of sitting still and listening and getting something from a religious service, and allowing them to distract themselves via video games or texting or surfing the Web is depriving them of the opportunities to learn patience, sit still for an hour, and experience the peace and soul-satisfying feelings of religious worship. Some people out there may not consider faith or organized religion to be important, so they can probably just disregard this whole post. But for those parents who value the role of religion in their lives and the lives of their children, I say, make sure your children aren’t distracted so they can actually feel the good feelings that come from being in a religious meeting. I personally think it’s absolutely crucial that my daughters learn to feel the Holy Spirit, and understand how it can guide them in their lives. I want them to know that God and Jesus Christ are there and that they know them and want to help. Our family devotions of reading scripture and praying are part of that process of helping them to know those things and to turn to God for help. Church services are another piece of that important puzzle. I wouldn’t dare to distract them when they have the opportunity to experience peace and the Holy Ghost at church, and electronics are an easy distraction.

I don’t want to be judgmental, but at the same time, I wonder how many parents have given serious thought to how much  electronics can take away from valuable experiences that require quiet and contemplation. Computers and the Internet and games and all of those things can be real sources of distraction, and it’s not a minor issue. I thoroughly enjoyed an article by David A. Bednar called “Things As They Really Are,” which addressed the issue of “cyberspace” interactions and experiences. In it, he said, “Sadly, some young men and young women in the church today ignore ‘things as they really are’ and neglect eternal relationships for digital distractions, diversions, and detours that have no lasting value. … A young man or woman may waste countless hours, postpone or forfeit vocational or academic achievement, and ultimately sacrifice cherished human relationships because of mind- and spirit-numbing video and online games.” And I think those last words are revealing: these devices are numbing. They do not challenge us or encourage us to grow in any way; they simply numb us and prevent us from feeling or thinking too much at all. And why do we attend church? To grow, to ponder, to commune with the divine. We go to be inspired. How can we do that when our minds and spirits are being numbed by electronics? Bednar went on to say: “Please be careful of becoming so immersed and engrossed in pixels, texting, earbuds, twittering, online social networking, and potentially addictive uses of media and the Internet that you fail to recognize the importance of your physical body and miss the richness of person-to-person communication. Beware of digital displays and data in many forms of computer-mediated interaction that can displace the full range of physical capacity and experience.”

As parents, let’s not get enmeshed ourselves in these potentially destructive uses of technology, which can really be a great blessing in so many ways. And let’s not allow and encourage our children, who are in such tender, formative stages of development, to be distracted and numbed, especially when they are in a sacred place like church, when they could be feeling the best of feelings and influences. Let’s think more carefully about how we use our electronics, when, and where.