Perfectly imperfect mothering

So it’s another Mother’s Day. This year is my 19th as a mom myself, so I’ve become accustomed to my children (and husband) scurrying around trying to figure out how to show me particular love and gratitude on my official day. But this year is the first for me to contemplate the reality of my own daughters becoming mothers: my oldest is getting married in two weeks, and somewhere down the line she will become a mother herself.

I could write a book (well, I have, actually, years ago when my oldest was little and I was just discovering truths more experienced women already knew) about mothering, but today I’ll try to share just a few words about my feelings this day, this week, this month.

I’ve realized even more than before that two opposite truths can coexist perfectly fine, and usually do: I can feel I’m doing an amazing job as a mom and I can feel I’m doing a terrible job as a mom. And while those generally go back and forth, sometimes I can feel both at once. And they’re kind of both true. I’m a person of faith, a Christian, and I believe I’m the daughter of a Heavenly Father and that I have a Savior, Jesus, who taught vital truths for me to follow, set an example, and most importantly suffered and died for my sins and weaknesses and general mortal-ness. So I can feel in that very weak mortal-ness that I’m not doing nearly as well as I’d like to be, being like that perfect example that was set. But if I just try to remember that I’m not expected to be doing great, not expected to be perfect, that the whole point of Jesus atoning was to make up for my huge insufficiencies, I feel a lot better.

This applies so well to the daunting job of mothering. I like to speak to reality, to the challenging, painful, imperfect realities that we all experience day to day. And it’s true that I can lose my temper, that I can get annoyed with my kids, that I can say things I wish I hadn’t and not say or do things I wish I had but just couldn’t summon up the energy to do. I think everyone today is painfully aware of our realities, of the ways we fall short, of the ways we don’t at all seem to fit in the glowy, pink, Hallmark Mother’s Day Mother role. So I’ve seen a lot of friends or others speak to this reality, this feeling that we just simply don’t measure up. And that’s true. We don’t. We’re not perfect, we’re not all the same, in the same Mother mold. Our own mothers weren’t, and we aren’t as mothers ourselves.

But it’s also absolutely true that we were born to be mothers. God created us to be mothers, and He knew we wouldn’t be perfect as people all-around or as mothers, specifically. And He was OK with that. He allowed us to have this experience of motherhood in part so we could become better through the crucible that it is, and that all of us interesting, different, unique souls could rub up against each other in all our roughness and smooth out our edges together. Most importantly, our Heavenly Father didn’t send us to Earth to do smoothing without any help. I firmly believe He is heavily involved in our lives and that if we turn to Him and the Savior, we will be lifted and all the stupid things we do will be made better somehow.

So this Mother’s Day, I honor my mom not because she was perfect or I grew up in the perfect home, but because she was herself and did a great job of it. Her mothering was what I needed. I feel good about my strengths and how I’ve put those to good use day in and day out with my four daughters. When it comes to my many weaknesses, I will try a little harder not just to be better but, even more than that, to remember that I am not expected to be perfect, that God will fill in the holes. I will try to remind my daughters above all that God is aware of them and that they have a Savior, and He will be there with them in everything they do, no matter how imperfectly they do it. I think I’ve done a good job teaching my oldest to turn to her Heavenly Father for help, day in and day out, especially for the times when maybe I wasn’t the best of help as her mom. So today, I feel confident that my daughter, with all her amazing strengths and, yes, her not-strengths, will be a great mom. She’ll struggle, she’ll flail around a bit, but she will be awesome. She’ll have moments of that high when mothering seems truly like a gift from God and her little ones almost like angels, and she’ll have days that are blurry from lack of sleep and dark from feelings of inadequacy.

In short, she’ll feel like mothers everywhere. And I thank God for that.

Parents who don’t hover are the ones in danger, not their kids

I’ve read a couple of articles lately that have reminded me just how tough it is to parent these days. And not in the ways you might think.

First, I read a great column about one woman’s experience, When kids were unbreakable, remembering her “dangerous” childhood and giving her kids some more opportunities for freer play. I think most of us who are in our 40s and up fondly recall hours of free play when we were growing up. I was particularly lucky to live “out in the country” most of the time before I turned 10, after which point I was more in neighborhoods. In both living situations, though, I was away from my house (and my watching mom) for hours at a time, playing in the dirt and in creeks, exploring the woods, walking along dirt roads, riding bikes along suburban streets or cutting through unfenced yards to walk to friends’ houses. I rode my bike with no hands a number of times, and once I ended up needing stitches in my elbow because of it (and I didn’t do it again). I don’t remember a lot of other dangerous things I must have done, just that I had lots of fun, was mostly smart about it, and paid attention to what was going on around me. Dad taught me to shoot a rifle in the backyard a few times (in the country); Mom taught me how to use a knife (and lots of other tools) in the kitchen.

The short story is this: my mom and dad didn’t watch my every move. I wasn’t penned inside my house; I wasn’t watching TV or any other screens very much. I ran and played. I breathed fresh air. I invented all kinds of fun games by myself and with friends and (if forced 🙂 ) my younger siblings. I made something fun out of “nothing,” the materials at hand. My mom felt fine — and was a perfectly great parent — letting me go outside her supervision for those hours.

Today, things are far different. We live in a hyper-vigilant society, in which we have 24-hour news coming at us from TV and the Internet and smartphones. Every instance of bad things happening to kids is reported to us. We fear strangers and are sure if we aren’t watching our kids every moment, that someone will likely snatch them. We live in a time when we are told to know the signs of child abuse. This is a good thing; abuse is not pushed under the rug as much and is better reported. But it’s made us all wary of being the kinds of parents who let our kids have free creative time to explore and imagine and play, without being within 10 yards of them at all moments. We fear that our kids might get kidnapped and/or abused. We fear that we’re not being “engaged” with our kids, providing them lots of fun play options. We fear we’re not good enough. I’m fairly sure that these weren’t concerns for our parents.

Which brings me to the second, and very disturbing but not surprising, article, Woman Calls CPS After Seeing Kid Play Outside. It upsets me to read it because I’ve been in a similar position. When my first two were only 2 years old and a few months old, I was reported (anonymously, though I was able to piece together who it was because I knew her personality and modus operandi) to CPS because someone was concerned they were undernourished and one had a raw, chapped rash between her lips and her nose. Here’s what the circumstances were: my kids were and still are, many years later, petite. The infant had Down syndrome, and many people don’t realize that children with Down’s have their own growth chart. My pediatrician measured her growth against other DS kids. She was fine and perfectly healthy. In fact, we’ve always been blessed that she’s been remarkably healthy, with no heart problems, no digestive problems, almost no ear infections, even. But she looked, to one too-sensitive observer, to be “too small.” My 2-year-old just had a bad (and difficult to break) habit of licking above her lips and that small area was for a fairly short period of time just red and chapped, and I did everything I could think of to make it better. This apparently also made me an object of concern.

A case worker came out to our house and questioned me and looked at the kids, and I was lucky enough that that was the end of it. My kids also were too young to know anything was going on. But it was extremely upsetting for me. I was scared and just sick to my stomach. Raising my kids was hard, and I was always grateful for a break and me-time, but I certainly didn’t want them taken from me!

It was also my introduction to the brave new world of Big Brother: everyone is watching you. And they are given the power over your life to call a number and anonymously report the possibility of you being a Bad Parent. Then you are thrown into what I have discovered is not just a flawed system, but one that’s in some places openly hostile and dangerous to normal, good parents. I don’t have space to tell all the stories, but I could relate a number of them, of good and loving parents who have ended up having to take time-consuming and unnecessary parenting classes, hire attorneys, and be in genuine fear for their parenting and working lives because someone misconstrued something they did in public. It is terrifying.

We have become a nation of helicopter parents, it’s true. And we’ve become a nation of people who are quick to jump to conclusions, who are quick to call “the authorities” on the basis of a tiny possibility of a problem, who don’t know their neighbors from Adam, who have no idea of any context of the lives of the people they’re reporting on. If we knew each other better, knew that our neighbors were good parents who love their kids, whose parenting styles assuredly are different from ours but are NOT BAD, who support their kids and teach them and are making them into responsible adults, we’d be far less likely to go straight to the government with a concern rather than talk to our neighbors first, if we do anything. But we don’t. We are very connected with disembodied people via smartphones and tablets and computer screens, and with talking heads on the news, but not truly interconnected with a community of real, living, breathing people. We’re taking a quick way out to call the authorities and assuage some kind of guilty conscience (for not being better involved, for not knowing Mr. and Mrs. Smith and their two kids next door) or to pat ourselves on the back for “doing the right thing,” as the government and news outlets repeatedly tell us.

Would it be possible at this point to go back a little, to recapture the sense of community we had as neighbors, to support each other in the tough job that is parenting, and to let our kids have the space they so desperately need (as studies keep proving) for free play and imagination and learning how to navigate the world? I’m a little worried that it’s not, that we’ve gone too far. But I desperately hope we haven’t.

Education problems? Families are the solution

If you’ve read my blog much at all, you may have noticed that I have a few passions: I care about and advocate for mental health issues, education, and other issues related to the media (content that’s suitable for families and kids, better accountability on issues like image and portrayals of women).

In the 14 years or so I’ve had kids in school, I’ve been involved in different aspects of education. At times, I’ve attended school board meetings and advisory meetings; at other times, I’ve been involved with specific organizations like the band boosters. I’ve always gone to my kids’ parent-teacher conferences and back-to-school nights and open houses and so on. I’ve helped out in classes sometimes and gone to activities. In all this time, I’ve observed all kinds of problems, some of which I’ve written about.

But in all I’ve done to participate, read, ask questions, and educate myself about education in the United States today, I’ve realized one thing underlies most of the problems and concerns: families aren’t playing the role they should in the development of children and their overall education.

I’ll say that again: Taken on the whole, families (i.e. parents) in this country aren’t teaching, supporting, and nurturing their kids. Why? Lots of reasons. But to be brief and try to get at a core issue, families simply aren’t “whole” anymore. I read a great overview of how there is no “average American family” anymore and it provides a few revealing statistics, taken from a new book: “Take 100 children who are representative of American life, … and 22 live in families where mom stays home and dad earns the income — the ‘typical’ family experience of 65 percent of kids in the 1950s. Another 23 live with a single mother; it’s a 50-50 proposition whether that single mom was ever married. Seven live with a cohabiting single parent and three each are being raised by a single dad or grandparent.”

If many kids are living with just one parent, and that parent has to do the job of two parents, and is necessarily away from the home working to provide for the family, it follows that those kids won’t have the level of involvement in their day-to-day lives and school lives as a household in which there are two parents. And in those households in which both parents are working (because that’s their choice or because of economic necessity), kids will have more involvement in their lives than the families with one parent around, but they simply won’t have the time dedicated to them that a family has with two parents with only one parent working outside the home. I’m not casting blame here at all; I’m simply looking at the realities of time constraints and what kind of actual QUANTITY time kids have with parents, as opposed to the oft-talked-about “quality” time.

The reality is that quality is great, but a certain amount of quantity is vital. As a stay-at-home parent (I do editing work from home on my own schedule, which is a luxury I really appreciate), I get lots of face time with my kids, who are all in formative periods of their lives. They come home from school and have questions or comments or needs, and I’m there for them. They are lucky to have a parent there to help them with needs and to do informal teaching. Kids’ learning really happens during moments they have questions and someone can answer tailored to their interests.

So with the new reality being kids living in homes with single parents who must be absent and with two parents who are both often absent (during those crucial times of afternoon into early evening), kids aren’t getting as much time for informal learning from their parents. That learning includes all kinds of topics: building character, learning to manage finances, learning about interesting topics that schools don’t necessarily provide classes in, getting opportunities for family “field trips.”

Schools are places to learn the sciences, literature, math, writing, history, etc. I was quite good in all the school subjects when I was growing up, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable teaching advanced math or sciences to my kids; I’d rather they have teachers who specialize in each subject and who are particularly adept in those to help them learn about those topics.

I guess I sound rather old-fashioned. But the reality is that it’s not the job of schools to teach character, for instance. Schools can’t take my kids on trips very often at all to learn about different areas of our state or country. Schools can’t teach faith, and they don’t often have time to focus on basic life skills that are more easily learned informally at home.

Character Counts is a nice program, but it isn't enough to replace parents teaching their kids about character 24/7.
Character Counts is a nice program, but it isn’t enough to replace parents teaching their kids about character 24/7.

Time in school is finite, and as I’ve observed at a variety of meetings with other parents and educators, it’s becoming more and more difficult to fit in during a school day all the core subjects, let alone other things schools are having to teach kids because their families aren’t doing it very well or at all. In our town, elementary schools focus on a different character trait every month to teach students: respect, responsibility, caring, trustworthiness, fairness, citizenship. Why? The “Character Counts” program was started to “combat youth violence, irresponsibility and dishonesty” by stressing positive character traits. This means that the community and schools were finding that kids and teens were acting badly and needed to be taught values; families weren’t doing the job.

Over the past dozen-plus years I’ve been actively participating in community education, I’ve seen all the problems that exist. I’ve also seen all the programs school systems have started or turned to to combat the problems. I’ve seen how little time and money exist for schools to be able to surmount all these issues by themselves. And the simple fact of the matter is this: no matter how much schools try to do to “raise” kids into good, contributing members of society, they simply can’t parent kids. Parents parent. And no one else can do that very challenging, intense, nonstop, VITAL job.

I’ll continue to be involved in school meetings and advisory panels and so on. I’ll continue to give ideas on how better to teach and support all kids, mine and everyone else’s. But nothing I or the schools can do will take the place of the home. The solution is to support families and homes. Our nation, our communities, absolutely must find ways to strengthen families. In the article I mentioned earlier, Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, says this: “Kids raised by their own intact, married parents are more likely to flourish. Given that, public policy should help strengthen both the economic and the married foundations of family life for kids in the United States.”

Until we change our attitudes about marriage and family life, our children (including their education) will continue to suffer.

A wedding is a promise of best days to come

The wedding of my littlest sister gave me the opportunity to remember the start of "best days" in my life.
The wedding of my littlest sister gave me the opportunity to remember the start of “best days” in my life.

This weekend I had the privilege of witnessing a wedding. Weddings are such happy occasions, filled with love, friendship and support and the opportunity to further cement ties of various kinds. At one point after this wedding, someone commented that the day would be the “happiest day” of this young couple’s lives. I thought immediately, “You know, it is a great day, but there will be many more and even happier days to come.” I can definitely say my wedding day was not the happiest or best day of my life; it was 21 years ago, and I was 23, and I loved my husband and was excited for the day and all it meant, but I have had so many wonderful days, better days, since.

The groom in this scenario was the next-to-youngest of eight children, and his parents were blessed to have all their older children married already, and these couples were all in attendance. I’d venture to say, from my own experience, that this day may very well have been one of the best days of the groom’s parents’ lives to date, as they were able to celebrate a beautiful, meaningful occasion not just as a couple, but as a family: the family they themselves created and nurtured.

My view is that marriage isn’t just about putting a legal or cultural stamp of approval on a romantic relationship. It’s meant to be the start of a family. And my faith teaches that families are forever: that marriage is a vow between a man and a woman that can be “sealed” in the presence of God in a temple and last forever, more than just “till death do you part.” And that promise to be faithful to each other and support each other and grow together includes having children and teaching them and loving them. That big picture, the years spent growing together as a couple in love and being able to rear children, is what brings the best days of all.

I definitely appreciate the sentiment expressed by Bruce Hafen in one of his excellent books, The Broken Heart: “One new bride reportedly said to her mother on her wedding day, “Oh, Mom, I’m so happy! I’m at the end of my troubles.’ ‘Yes, dear,’ replied the wise mother, ‘but which end?'”

A wedding day may seem the culmination or the end of a courtship, the fulfillment and denouement of romantic love. But it’s really just the start of something much bigger, deeper, and wider. I’ve enjoyed some wonderful days with my love of 21 years, as well as a bunch of stinky ones. We’ve had our share of troubles and stresses and real difficulties. We’ve had our share of disagreements and I’ve had moments or even hours during which I’ve been very frustrated with him (and I’m sure he’s been in the same boat with feelings about me), to the point where I was beside myself and unsure where to go next, how to resolve our problems, how to feel less angry or disappointed. But I’ve had moments of pure contentment, absolute satisfaction, utter bliss. I’ve been satisfied that despite the difficulties, I made a good choice of spouse and that despite everything, I still just LIKE him a lot almost all of the time.

We’ve been blessed to have four daughters, three biological and one adopted. And we’ve had days and weeks of frustration in parenting, of being at wits’ end, of not knowing how to proceed with parenting challenges. As our kids have gotten older, these moments have become more frequent and intense, because they’re more and more their own people with distinct personalities and very definite plans to exert independence. They can and do make their own decisions, and it’s our job to guide them and provide meaningful consequences, discipline and teaching, combined with big doses of love and compassion. But the whole job has gotten almost exponentially harder and more challenging with each year each gets older.

At the same time, these independent people we’re rearing are also sources of immense joy and happiness. At the best of times, when everyone is getting along, when we’re just having fun, simply being ourselves together and laughing and being distinctly us, the unit that is uniquely the Marce and Cathy Lim family, it is the best of anything I’ve ever experienced. It really does feel like heaven on earth, the best version you can dream up.

Here’s why these years can contain the best days I’ve ever had: there are more of us than just the two we started out with. Our little couple expanded into a sixsome composed of some amazing people who are wonderful to be around as individuals but even better when combined. I cherish our wedding day as the start of what we have now. But it was just a seed, an embryo, of what we were meant to be and to have. And as time goes on past today, past this year, past these moments where I can enjoy other young couples’ “seed” days of weddings, our Lim tree is growing and growing. There are far more “best days” ahead, and I look forward to them with great anticipation.

Safety nets and support systems

A few weeks ago, an outspoken acquaintance was ranting about public education, among other social issues. The married man in his mid-30s (who has no children, mind you) said, “Anyone who sends their kids to public school is a neglectful parent.” Bold — but undeniably hyperbolic — words. And while I appreciated the kernels of insight (far) below them, with many frustrations of my own about public education, I had to disagree for a number of reasons, aside from the obvious point that there are plenty of us very good parents who still are sending our kids to public schools.

Then I was talking with my mom about my grandma, who’s 97 and in probably better health than I’m in, and living in a nice retirement community. She recently fell a couple of times and got an infection, so she spent a few days in the hospital and now is in transitional care and needing a bit more attention, rather than being pretty much independent. My mom has been with her there (visiting from the town she lives in about a 6-hour drive away) and has been outraged at the lack of attentive care she’s been witnessing — and this is with my mom there near her, at a highly ranked facility, and my grandma has very good insurance and financing. We’re not even talking about a not-so-great facility paid for by Medicare.

I won’t go into all my concerns about public education, about health care, about elder care. They’re each deserving of thousands and thousands of words. What strikes me, though, is that as a 40-something woman who has children at home, one daughter about to attend college, and a mother who’s retired and a grandma who’s quite old, I am in that spot of life where there are plenty of people to worry about and take care of on some level. And as much as I’d love to be the kind of person who could home-school my kids, I’m just not. Plus, I still want them to have the opportunities for learning about the world that exist outside my home. And I wish my mom and grandma could live with (or nearer to) me and I could help watch out for them.

We all need safety nets.
We all need safety nets.

Here’s the thing: none of us in our society today is capable of doing it all. In fact, no one ever has been able to “do it all” as we see it in our contemporary society. We have so many opportunities for self-actualization and fulfillment (which can be “bad” or “good,” depending on to what lengths we go to achieve them) and for involvement in the world around us today. But we depend on our public-sector system to provide certain services to take care of our wide and varied needs, like education and health care. Decades ago, extended families lived either in one home or very close by, and they worked together, sharing all the duties. Communities were truly communal; everyone did something to take care of someone else, essentially. Today, extended families are often distant. My mother is 2000 miles away from me, as well as most of my siblings. It’s my job and my husband’s to take care of my children; he provides most of the money from his 40-hour-a-week job to buy what we need, and I carry out many of the functions at home (another blog post entirely, too…). I feel we’re actually blessed to be able to have that setup (I am pleased with it, let’s make a note of that, too); I have flexibility to be able to be there for my girls when they need me throughout the day and to be involved in educational and extracurricular activities. I also am able to pursue some of my own interests, which makes me feel “me” and better able to take care of my family.

“It takes a village” has now become a bit of a trope, but it’s still true. Individuals need systems around them to allow them to live and thrive. Nuclear families best provide individuals with what they need, and extended families best support nuclear families.

So what’s wrong now? I am positive much of it is the breakdown of nuclear families; we have so many single-parent families today. Extended families are just as broken in many respects; some aren’t broken, just distant because of necessity. The basic solution is twofold: do all we can as a society to support the nuclear family, helping and encouraging the formation and permanency of families, and then to make sure the public-sector services are good and dependable. Everyone, every family, needs to know that education is well funded and well run. And families who are responsible for their elder members need to know they will be supported in those vital endeavors as well.

I’m not “for” government running everything. I am “for” programs that will provide help to families, who are the backbone of our society. I am “for” making sure there are safety nets and support systems in place, not to replace the work of families, but to help them do their work better. Because if our families are struggling, our whole society is in a real pickle.

Interacting with the world

I was thinking again about what a stark contrast there is between the kind of lives my kids and those of their generation lead and the childhood I experienced. I can’t help but lament the huge influence of electronics and other gadgets of today.

Here I am with my sister just watching the cows near our house in eastern Pennsylvania.
Here I am with my sister just watching the cows near our house in eastern Pennsylvania.

I have fond memories of spending lots of time outdoors. Let me make clear that I am not an “outdoorsy” type now and kind of wasn’t even then. I don’t really enjoy camping, I don’t hike, don’t fish, don’t go on trips out to natural wonders; rather, I really enjoy visiting cities with interesting historical sites, museums, and lots of other cultural wonders; I read, I spend time learning things online, editing, writing, etc. I guess it sounds odd I would then be nostalgic about my outdoorsy childhood. But I am. I’m pretty sure my mom forced me out the door when I was a kid, so I would get some fresh air, take a break from reading, and get out of her hair for a while. But I think back on all the beautiful country that lay around the old houses we lived in in various parts of Pennsylvania and just savor those memories. I made mud pies, incorporating wild little onions and carrots and the moist dirt that lay right along the burbling streams. In the winter, my siblings and I built great igloos and forts out of the snow that was so abundant.

Did I watch TV very much? Nah. Do I have fond memories of sitting around the TV set with my family? Not much. I do have some fond memories of going to see classic films with my dad and sister and brother. We watched “Oliver” and “Fantasia.” When teaching his occasional film class, Dad would bring us in to introduce us to Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet” and even “Battleship Potemkin.” “Citizen Kane” was on the menu. But day-in, day-out, we didn’t have the option of watching videos in our living room. There were 13 channel options on the TV knob, and not all corresponded to an actual station (half were just static).

I love the scent of lilacs today because we had an amazing lilac bush outside a side door of one house, which had a kind of hollowed-out middle I could crawl into and think while smelling that intoxicating floral scent. While I don’t take the time today to find places to walk in nature, I did enjoy just setting out through woods and trails and seeing what I’d find, thinking about whatever while doing so.

Today, my kids and others have instant entertainment in the forms of hundreds of options of (mostly dreck) on TV; they have DVDs galore; there are computers with the Internet, Facebook, Google, YouTube, what have you; smartphones to access that same fun (and often the same level of dreck) stuff whenever they’re not sitting at a desktop computer, and so on. Even though I try to limit the amount of time they spend in front of any screen, just being entertained, I do lament that they aren’t forced as much to just entertain themselves. (Part of my sadness here is that my husband and I always lived “in town,” as opposed to the old houses out seemingly in the middle of nowhere my parents had us live. I admit I have caved to the convenience of having shopping, school, work, etc. easily and quickly accessible. Plus, my husband is a city boy.)

Yep, so here I am being one of those “old codgers” who talks about the good ol’ days and being sad about what’s happening with the young folk. Most of the time, I just do what I can to make my kids entertain themselves (they do love to read and we have a TON of books around, and we have plenty of paint, crayons, paper, etc. and other raw materials for play/learning) and keep them off the computer or away from the TV. But there are moments I wish they could have enjoyed the “simpler time” I had. Guess I’m just turning into my parents here. It’s bound to happen to all of us eventually.

It takes a village to keep me (mostly) sane

Life can sometimes be stressful. Life can sometimes be sublime. It can also, on rarer occasions, be unrelenting in its attacks, throwing punches from the left, right, above and below and behind — any which way — to try to knock one out, making the simple adjective “stressful” woefully inadequate.

It’s been like that for me the past month or two: life has nearly knocked me out. I suppose that any of the somewhat small things that has happened to me could just be easily shaken off; it would be laughable to think that any would really make me want to walk a ledge. But the constant barrage has cumulatively made me angry, frustrated, exhausted, utterly drained and significantly less able to function.

As time has worn on and I’ve become worn out, but I’ve still had to just keep on moving forward because circumstances have simply not allowed me to stop moving, I have come to appreciate just how much I appreciate those who are willing and ready to step in and help lend a hand or just offer moral support as I try to put one foot in front of the other.

This past week I’ve been traveling, visiting family and friends and attending the college graduation of a nephew and his wife. I was already at my wits’ end before the traveling began, so being in the car for hours on end (with three of my four children all cooped up in the small space with me and my husband) and sleeping in different places and all the other things that go along with road trips have made me even more tired and nearly feeling rather out-of-body.

Even so, seeing these special people has been a little boost. We visited for a short time with my husband’s oldest niece, a sweet young woman who was just a kindergartener when we married 20 years ago. Seeing her reminded me just how much I am grateful for her influence in my husband’s life: when she was an infant, he had just returned from a two-year LDS mission and was starting to get back to school and work. But he had plenty of time to help baby-sit her while his sister worked. He loved the experience. By the time we had our first child, I was still adjusting to the whole concept of parenting and all that went with it. But he was just ready to go. He changed diapers and clipped tiny fingernails before I even did. He held her and rocked her in the middle of the night to try to get her to sleep. Even for me, spending time with her as a five- and six-year-old was so enjoyable that I began to look forward to having a small child of my own to do things with.

Spending time with my grown nephew was rewarding because he fits in so well with my little family: my children adore him and his wife, and we enjoy their company so much. It also gives me great hope for his generation of our family and makes me want to be the best influence I can be. I don’t want to disappoint him.

Sitting with my wonderful, dear friend who lives a day’s drive away is always a blessing. We get to have so little time together, but when we do, it’s renewing and enriching. I can be utterly myself with her; I never fear how I may come across. I can unburden myself and she will listen and support without judgment and with love and compassion. She can encourage me to have hope and to do better without making me feel chastised or preached to or lacking or bad about myself. She has a real gift. She’s like my friend soul mate, and I am absolutely blessed to have her.

Last, I’ve had a great deal of practical help from friends in our hometown while we’ve been gone. My oldest had to stay behind because of a school commitment, and our absence, combined with all the things that had already gone wrong before our trip, required us to ask for a lot of help for her with rides, a place to stay so she won’t be alone, and lots of other little things. A number of friends have gladly and willingly stepped in to take care of her and figure out how to solve little problems while we’re gone. Their help has eased my mind greatly on her account. My mind has been racing so much and has been so burned out by all I’ve had to keep track of and fix, etc., that I don’t know if I could have done what needed to be done for her had people not just volunteered and helped her without my even being involved.

Sure, it does take a village to raise a child (a child just thrives and learns the best with a mom and dad and extended family and friends and teachers and all kinds of other people in a community). But it also takes a village to keep an adult functioning. We’re really all interdependent. The better connected we are, the better we can keep on keepin’ on. I’m just incredibly blessed to have some good people in my life and incredibly grateful to them for helping me to survive the toughest periods of my life.

Yep, clutter extends to stuff that takes up no real space

So I was reading this roundup article that tells about how people are having problems being DIGITAL hoarders. I suppose this should come as no surprise. I’ve long been overwhelmed by the sheer number of emails, documents, photos and other things I have to keep track of and organize in the virtual world, so it stands to reason that there are people who simply keep all their virtual things.

What’s sad is that it’s tough enough to keep entropy at bay in the concrete world. It takes daily effort to go through my house and constantly sort and throw items that creep into all my hiding places and on top of counters, desks, and shelves. I seem to have almost no help in this battle, though, since my children tend to be squirrels, and my husband would much rather keep pretty much everything, just in case. I’ve mostly broken him of the habit of picking things up at garage sales and (when we lived in the South and people just put old things on the side of the road to get rid of) bringing junk home that other people were THROWING AWAY. But he doesn’t on his own take the initiative to regularly go through things and organize and toss. I’m practically the lone ranger as I fight the onslaught of clutter.

The great news as computers have taken root in our lives is that we’ve “gone green” in many ways, replacing paper documents with e-versions. Sure, we don’t have file cabinets quite as full anymore, but our Yahoo or Gmail inboxes are overflowing. Junk mail that arrives in my mailbox gets thrown right into my recycling can, and then when I go online, I have to do the same thing with its electronic siblings. And as wonderful as it has been to visually document our families’ lives and travels, photos now proliferate in the pictures folder, a cascading wave of so-so shots of wacky faces and blinked eyes washing over the desktop. In this regard, it also doesn’t help that I have a 16-year-old with her own camera who takes it EVERYWHERE she goes and is constantly snapping shots.

So not only do I spend lots of time and energy daily sorting through the pile of paperwork that seems to multiply like rabbits on my literal desktop, I also sit down at that same cluttered desk and face a screen that shows me inboxes and folders full of unnecessary items that ARE SIMPLY 1’s AND 0’s. Even though they are not “real,” not taking up any real estate in my real life, they still manage to plague me as they multiply in my virtual world. There is something fairly satisfying about cleaning out my house, room by room, or one counter or drawer at a time, but the satisfaction isn’t quite as concrete and lovely when I am simply reducing the number on my inbox from 300 down to 230. Nope. But I have to regularly go through everything I own that only takes up space by megabytes and put it in a tiny little icon that says “recycle bin.”

What has this world come to when I have to clean something that, in a way, doesn’t really exist?

The best of (mothering) times

Motherhood did not come naturally to me. Babysitting, on the rare occasions I consented to do it, was a rough job, one that wasn’t worth nearly the small pay I got to do it. So once I gave birth for the first time and was presented with a tiny little stranger, I was absolutely flummoxed about what to do with her. Even looking at pictures of me with that first child, I can see the confusion and nervousness in my eyes: “What now?” I was thinking.

And that first child gave me fits. She was a very demanding baby. She didn’t eat for half an hour and then settle down quietly for the next four hours. She snacked for ten minutes and then needed to eat again two hours later. She did NOT like to be put down. I had to hold her constantly. For someone who was pretty independent and used to going about my business, having the little seven-pound interloper in my arms nonstop made it pretty difficult to get anything done.

So that darling child did not ease me gently into motherhood. It was a bumpy ride, and I did not enjoy it. I was exhausted and overwhelmed and overloaded. I remember many times that first year thinking, “I can’t wait til I’m done having children and they grow up a bit.”

Time slowly went by, and I gave birth two more times and adopted once. I knew what I was doing the second and third times, and the second baby was just the most easygoing child ever. She would eat and then sit in her bouncy seat or car seat and smile beatifically up at me, doing whatever I needed to do. Third child was somewhere in between. But by then I had help: two older sisters to distract her (and one time push her off the couch…). Fourth baby was a breeze in many ways because I didn’t breast-feed her, so everyone else could take turns feeding her a bottle. And changing diapers. And holding and playing with her. It was so much more fun that time around to have a little baby. I enjoyed her.

They all went through the terrible twos and their early stages of independence and potty training. Those days are now behind me. My oldest is now 16, and the youngest 5. They’re now all in school. They can feed and dress themselves and read to themselves, except for the kindergartener. Yes, I am finally getting to that magic place I imagined when I had that first demanding baby. And it’s struck me that this time is finite. The oldest is now not a squalling infant; she’s a high school junior. And she is amazing. She’s delightful and smart and talented and beautiful and makes me laugh. She can talk my ear off about her day. We can share jokes together. She’s one of my dearest friends, and I am loving life with her in it. Now the day of her leaving the nest is actually in sight (less than two years!), and it’s paining my heart to even think about. I DON’T WANT HER TO LEAVE!

Ah, what a difference 15 or 16 years can make.

So I have realized that, despite the absolutely crazy, hectic pace of my daily life with four children in school and all the needs they have, these are the best of times. In a few years, one daughter will be gone, and the others will be making their way towards that direction as well. The clock is ticking. And at this stage of my life, it’s not a biological clock. It’s the clock reminding me with every tock and tick that while motherhood is permanent, having children at home is not. I bemoan the lack of peace and quiet and sufficient time to myself now, but even in the midst of this busy-ness, I can’t imagine my house being quiet all the time. I love knowing that I can cuddle and squeeze all of my girls any time, that I can talk to them, listen to them, just study their faces. That we can laugh together.

I’m going to keep reminding myself during the tough days or moments that these really are the best of times. It might take a loud reminder during those moments, but I hope I can somehow still remember and appreciate what I have now.

A soft spot in my heart for … houses

Last summer, my daughter’s friend moved out of the country and had a cat who unexpectedly gave birth to a litter of kittens right before they left. My softie heart bled for those poor little kittens, and I decided that we should take the mother cat and all six kittens so they could have a chance at life. We fed the mama, let her feed her babies, and cleaned up after them. A lot. We gave the kittens baths at the outset and treated them for fleas so they wouldn’t be “exsanguinated” by the nasty little bugs, as a vet friend warned could happen otherwise. We cleaned some more. We had fun with those kitties and got exasperated as well. About two and a half months later, after finding homes for a few and not succeeding with the others, I took them in to the SPCA, fairly confident that they could be adopted, healthy as they were and still cute but able to eat and use a litter box. I had done my best by them, by golly.

I’ve found myself experiencing the same tug at my heart as I drive by homes in my town, particularly old ones, that have been left by their owners or occupants, most likely all because of foreclosure. They look so forlorn, their windows boarded up, their lawns growing tall. It doesn’t take long at all for a house to look derelict. I just want to buy them, somehow, and refurbish them. I’m not a house flipper; I happen to own one rental house, only because we lived in it, moved across country, and then couldn’t sell it. But I’m not an “investor.” I don’t look at houses and see investments or dollar signs or income. I see history and lives and stories.

My early years set me up for this love of mine. My parents ended up buying or renting old homes when I was a child in Pennsylvania. I remember all the neat nooks and crannies of the houses and the land they sat on (we invariably lived out in the country somewhere). So many locations for hiding, for exploring, so many stages for my imagination to create wonderful sets on.

I wish I could find another picture of this house without it being so hidden behind trees. It was wonderful. Now it’s gone, only living in my memory and the memories of whoever else lived there and still is alive today.

I remember just looking at this house before we moved in and being in awe of its age, all the stories that somehow seemed to be hiding within its walls, bits of the plots or characters almost seeping out before my eyes. It had a wonderful hallway/landing at the top of the stairs around which clustered the bedrooms. If you walked all the way around the landing to the right, you’d be standing immediately above the downstairs entryway. And there was a door to the attic. The first room at the top of the stairs was originally a bedroom, but somewhere along the way it had been “modernized” to become a plumbed bathroom. So it was a good-sized room, with a clawfoot tub just sitting on one side and a sink and toilet deposited there as well. Ah, the space! The house was so old it either didn’t have closets, or they were tiny, so we had to use armoires. I did enjoy that house. It broke my heart when 20 years later I drove up to that area with my husband and first two daughters and tried to find the house, only to discover it had been replaced by a subdivision (shudder!). How dreadfully boring and unoriginal! I felt so sorry for the people who lived in those dull new houses and for those who would never get to explore the old homestead.

After that, we moved into the house “on the mountain,” only reachable via dirt and gravel roads which were nearly unnavigable in wintertime. Dirt roads covered with slick ice and snow that go up and up do not make for safe driving. The house itself wasn’t quite as cool as our previous house, but the whole mountain was our playground, and it was just as fun in snowy conditions as it was when all was green.

My husband grew up, however, in suburbia, in tract housing that was, frankly, boring and generic compared to what I had grown up with. Over time, I converted him to my way of thinking. We were very excited to be able to find a wonderful old place to rent for our first house as a married couple.

It was Tudor style and a solid 70 years old and had such neat touches: there was a milk-delivery slot on one side of the home. Useless to us nowadays, but cool! It was just a reminder of what the house had seen, what life had been like in its early days. It had hardwood floors and lovely built-ins and a very old but pretty wool carpet in the living/dining room area. I did love that house. It reminded me of my childhood homes and just the notion that something made of wood and plaster can feel like it’s a living, breathing thing, full of history and character.

We moved out of California back East, away from the land of layers of big-city suburbs and stucco, to small towns and wood/vinyl siding or brick. There we were able to buy our first house. It was modest in size but was older, with hardwood throughout and nice character. After eight years there, we just happened to drive by a house that had a little “for sale by owner” sign in the front. We weren’t planning on moving; hadn’t even thought about getting a different house. But I just couldn’t help but look. When I walked up the staircase and got a glimpse of the rooms upstairs, it just gave me the same feeling I’d had walking up the stairs of that old, long-gone house I lived in as a child. I couldn’t help but buy the place.

It was 100 years old when we bought it, with all kinds of wonderful touches. It had a porch all the way along the front and a barn in the back, even though it was “in town” on a main road. Everything else just grew up around it over the years, I suppose. We got in there and just rehabbed it. We painted all the rooms inside and then redid the two bathrooms, adding an antique clawfoot tub to the downstairs bath, which was large enough but somehow only had a toilet and sink (and just cried out for a clawfoot). We painted the outside eventually. We did so much to it and for it. It was beautiful, and it had such character.

But we left it behind. Now we live in a wonderful house that has some neat touches and isn’t a tract; it’s a 20-year-old custom home. It’s needed some work, too, which we’ve lovingly provided, a bit at a time. But as I drive around town and see some of the older houses here, I think, Oh, come to Momma, let me take care of you! I’ll give you the treatment you deserve.

But one can only take in so many kittens. I couldn’t possibly buy and make over all the wonderful old houses that sit so alone and desperately in need of TLC and good families to build memories and create new stories in them. Even so, the heart isn’t practical. That soft center inside my heart will always reach out to every boarded-up, uninhabited house, wanting so much to give it a new lease on life. No, I don’t get (too) excited about clearance signs in shopping malls. But my pulse accelerates at every “for sale” sign in the front of a classic home. Maybe, I think, I could just buy it and rent it out so someone else could enjoy it…